US gangs are a force in Central American prisons

Feb 17, 2012, 11:17 PM

Associated Press

SAN DIEGO (AP) – The deadliest prison blaze in a century has drawn attention to an unfortunate U.S. export to Central America: street gangs.

Prisons in Honduras and elsewhere in Central America are teeming with inmates who belong to gangs that have their roots in Southern California. Refugees of the region’s civil wars sowed a new breed of violence on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s.

When the U.S. stepped up deportations of criminals in the 1990s, they brought their brutal habits with them to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, countries with weak law enforcement and an inadequate prison system. The result was growing violence among gang members, and widespread police abuse as authorities rounded up suspects for having gang-affiliated tattoos. Some, like many of the 355 killed in Tuesday’s fire in Comayagua, were never even charged with a crime.

“It was just a perfect storm, where they arrived in a country that was unprepared and had no infrastructure,” said Los Angeles police Detective Frank Flores, who has been battling U.S. gangs with Central American ties since 1999.

The victims of Tuesday’s blaze were still being identified, and it was unclear exactly how many inmates had ties to U.S.-based gangs _ the most widely known being Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and 18th Street. But a Honduran government report, which was sent to the United Nations this month, said 57 percent of some 800 inmates of the Comayagua farm prison north of the Central American country’s capital were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members.

Alberto Mendoza, an inmate who survived the blaze, said Thursday that members of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs got along well at the prison. He described himself as a former 18th Street member.

“We are part of the same community here, not enemies,” the 32-year-old Mendoza said. “(Gangs) are part of the past. If someone brings it up, we send a message and they don’t bring it up again.”

The gangs haven’t just spread from Los Angeles to Central America. They have spread throughout the United States.

The MS-13 has an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 members and associate members worldwide, including 8,000 to 10,000 in the United States, according to the FBI’s most recent National Gang Threat Assessment in 2009. Its “cliques” operate in the Atlanta, Dallas and Washington, D.C., areas.

The 18th Street gang is believed to have about the same numbers, with a presence in 44 U.S. cities spanning 20 states, according the FBI.

When the Central Americans arrived in Los Angeles, the newcomers joined to protect their own from already established gangs.

“When someone’s new to the area, they get picked on,” said Flores, who _ according to a 2009 federal indictment _ was targeted for assassination by the MS-13. “They formed out of self-protection.”

Flores believes their exposure to the atrocities of war back home may have made them more prone to violence.

Jorja Leap, a professor of social welfare at University of California, Los Angeles, said the Central American gangs are unusually violent, slitting tongues of snitches and placing them on their corpses.

“These are gangs that are even feared among gangs,” said Leap, who has studied them extensively. “The feds work very hard to deal with them, but they’re pernicious. They’re like Medusa. You lop off a head, and another grows back.”

Jorge Ramon Hernandez, Honduran ambassador to the United States, didn’t respond to a message seeking comment Friday. Vivian Panting, the country’s consul general in Los Angeles from 1998 to 2009 and now a presidential aide for immigration affairs, acknowledged Honduras had been overwhelmed by the deportations, lacking prison space and trained police.

“It has been an enormous social problem in recent decades,” said Panting, who has spoken with five families in the United States who lost loved ones in the prison fire.

MS-13 members initiate newcomers by pummeling them for 13 seconds, a ritual known as being “jumped in.”

Gang members adorn themselves with elaborate tattoos from head to toe _ which make them into targets for government officials and others if they are deported to Central America. Nongovernmental organizations in Los Angeles do brisk business removing tattoos, an exercise that can take years and cost thousands of dollars.

Walter Magana, 39, has been getting monthly treatments in Los Angeles for about a year to remove tattoos from his neck and hands. He is a program administrator of Homies Unidos, a group that fields calls from families who say their loved ones are imprisoned in Central America without being charged.

Magana, a U.S. citizen born to Salvadoran immigrants, said one friend was deported to El Salvador and never accounted for. Another who was deported there was found dead with bullet wounds. No one was ever arrested.


Associated Press writer Marcos Aleman in Comayagua, Honduras, contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

Associated Press

Patient and 3 staffers charged in another patient’s beating death at mental health facility

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A patient, two psychiatric assistants and a nurse have been indicted on charges stemming from the beating death of another patient at a state-run mental health facility in Ohio. A 24-year-old man who allegedly attacked the 57-year-old victim at Twin Valley Behavioral Healthcare in Columbus on July 23, 2022, is charged […]

7 minutes ago

Associated Press

Writer for conservative media outlet surrenders to face Capitol riot charges

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Texas-based writer for a conservative media outlet surrendered to authorities Friday on charges that he joined a mob’s attack on the U.S. Capitol more than three years ago. Steve Baker, who has written articles about the Jan. 6, 2021, riot for Blaze News, faces four misdemeanor counts, including trespassing and disorderly […]

58 minutes ago

FILE - Kristlyn Wood, a cousin of 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham, reacts during a vigil in Cunningha...

Associated Press

Family and advocates want solution to legal loophole after the death of Audrii Cunningham

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — As mourners prepare for the funeral of 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham, who was killed near Houston, the community wants answers about how the suspect in her death was allowed to remain free despite a long criminal history of violence. Nearly two decades years before Don McDougal was charged with capital murder in […]

2 hours ago

Palestinians inspect the rubble of destroyed buildings after an Israeli airstrike in Nusseirat refu...

Associated Press

US to airdrop humanitarian aid into Gaza — how it can help and why it’s so complicated

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Friday announced that the U.S. will begin airdropping sorely needed humanitarian assistance into Gaza amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Here’s what you need to know: WHEN WILL THE AIRDROPS START? Biden said the airdrops will be coordinated with Jordan, which has conducted several rounds of airdrops into Gaza […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Judge puts brakes on new law banning foreign government spending on referendums

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A federal judge is delaying the implementation of a voter-approved law in Maine that aimed to close an election law loophole by stopping foreign government spending on state referendum races. U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen issued a preliminary injunction on Thursday, the day before the new law was to go into […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Legislation to legalize, tax skill games in Virginia heads to governor

Virginia lawmakers passed legislation Friday that would legalize skill games, the slots-like betting machines that proliferated in businesses around the state before an on-again, off-again ban took effect. If signed by GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the bill would tax and regulate the devices, which are also known as gray machines because of the murky area […]

3 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.


DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.

US gangs are a force in Central American prisons