February 6, 2006

Honduras gangs demand tattoo truce before talks

By Gustavo Palencia

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (Reuters) - Violent street gangs
terrorizing Honduras will talk to the new government about
ending years of bloodshed, but first want random arrests of
tattooed suspects to end, a mediator said on Monday.

Catholic Bishop Romulo Emiliani said both main youth gangs,
or 'maras,' also wanted President Manuel Zelaya's guarantee
their leaders would be safe after two were killed during failed
talks with the Central American nation's last government. There
was no immediate response to the demands from the government.

The scale of youth gang violence in Honduras has forced two
successive governments to attempt negotiations with the maras
akin to the 1990s peace talks that ended bloody civil wars with
leftist guerrillas in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala.

The Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, with an estimated
30,000 members, challenged Zelaya's predecessor, President
Ricardo Maduro, with a series of beheadings and an attack on a
bus in 2004 that killed 28 people.

After taking office last month, Zelaya's government said it
was in talks with one of the gangs, but did not specify which.

Emiliani, who would mediate the formal negotiations, told
Reuters that talks between both gangs and the government would
likely begin within two weeks.

"The two maras are ready to talk," he said. "Let us hope
that these conversations will be successful and that we soon
have peace and tranquillity in the country."

The government has said it will help rehabilitate former
gang members but will come down hard on those who do not want
to return to a normal life.

Human rights groups have criticized authorities for hauling
in suspected members just for sporting the intricate body and
face tattoos that characterize both gangs.

The street gangs grew out of Hispanic youth gangs in Los
Angeles and have terrorized Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala
in recent years with a wave of murders and mutilations.

Heavily linked to drug-dealing, they terrorize poor
neighborhoods with violent robberies of buses, businesses,
homes and goods trucks and often face off against each other
and the police with pistols and shotguns.

Under Maduro, the state fought the gangs with an army and
police crackdown that reduced their presence on the streets but
increased the fury of their attacks.