Thu, May 11, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Ex-gangsters struggle for acceptance

AP , TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS

Former Mara Salvatrucha gang member Juan Gabriel Ucles, 24, beside his son, follows his routine and prays in his room before leaving the house on March 14 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Ucles became a Christian two years ago, and since then has been living with his two children in a secret address out of his old neighborhood.

PHOTO: AP

Former president Ricardo Maduro took on Honduras' street gang problem with a zero-tolerance campaign, ordering police to arrest anyone who appeared likely to be part of a gang -- even if they had not committed any crime.

But the widespread roundup of suspected gang members led to overcrowding and violence in the Central American nation's ill-equipped prisons.

Maduro's successor, Manuel Zelaya, who took office in January, is trying conciliation. He has urged gang members to turn in their weapons in exchange for a chance to enter rehabilitation programs that offer alternatives to the criminal life, including job training and education.

Still, the old zero-tolerance policy has left many young men with the stigma of being viewed as gang members despite having no record of criminal offenses. Many struggle to find work and live in society after photos identifying them as criminals appeared in the news media.

Even before joining the violent street gangs, young men know there is no way back to ordinary society. Honduras' gangs recognize only lifetime membership and trying to drop out is considered a death sentence.

The only exception is if a gang member proves he has become a churchgoing Christian.

The former gang will keep watch to ensure that the dropout is not drinking, using drugs or hanging out on the streets and that he is always carrying a Bible.

Former gang members have found refuge in discreet shelters, some of which are run by a local church. Fear is a way of life for them. They run from the police, rival gangs, death squads and above all, their old companions.

While Honduras gets nearly US$60 million a year from international donors for the gang rehabilitation programs, many of the young men live in misery, with little chance of going to school, finding a job and rejoining society.

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