US gangs are a force in Central American prisons

ELLIOT SPAGAT (Associated Press) | February 17, 2012

SAN DIEGO—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.

Read more at: http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/crime/ci_19986060

Photo credit: AP Photo/Esteban Felix

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