Catholic Church Mediates Cease-Fire Between Honduran Gangs

In Honduras, the Roman Catholic Church has arranged a cease-fire between the country's two most violent gangs. The government hopes Tuesday's signing will lower violence in a country that is home to the world's deadliest city.

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In Honduras today, the nation's two most powerful gangs announced a cease-fire. The Roman Catholic Church mediated the agreement. And the announcement took place inside a prison, in what's considered the world's deadliest city, San Pedro Sula. NPR's Carrie Kahn is there, and she joins me now. And, Carrie, describe the scene at the cease-fire announcement today in prison.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Oh, I have to say, Melissa, it is the strangest press conference that I've ever been to. It was held inside the prison. And this prison is controlled by two gangs.

Dozens of the local press were escorted into the prison. And it's divided into two sections. And that's - they have to keep the gangs separate. One is for the Mara Salvatrucha gang and the other section is for the 18th Street gang. And it's interesting. They're separated in these two sectors, and there's the central patio. And in the patio, there's this yellow line and they call it the line of death. And if either of the gangs cross that line the guards shoot them.

So first, we were escorted into that Mara Salvatrucha side. There were two leaders there. And they stood under a tree and spoke to the press. And they talked about their desire to end the violence here in Honduras.

And then we were all escorted out, brought over to the other sector. And it was just a much more tense situation. There were many more 18th Street gang members that were out. They all had their faces covered with bandanas and wearing sunglasses, and they sat at a table. There were about four or five leaders who spoke to the press.

BLOCK: And, Carrie, tell us more about these two gangs, where they're from and what they've done.

KAHN: Many of these men were gang members in the United States. The 18th Street gang comes right out of Los Angeles, and so does the Mara Salvatruchas. I talked to many of these men and they said they had lived in Los Angeles for years. They were deported back to Honduras.

One of the men I spoke with, he actually had an L.A. Dodgers logo tattooed on his temple on one side and then on the other side was 213, which is the L.A. area code.

BLOCK: Well, what do you think this cease-fire would mean for Honduras if, in fact, it holds?

KAHN: What the men said was - they said they want from this day forward, they are going to stop all murders, extortion and kidnappings. And they said not just here in San Pedro Sula but throughout the country. If this is true and they can do that, this would be an amazing thing for Honduras.

The violence situation here is incredible. They said that what they are asking is forgiveness from society and, they said, from God for all the problems that they have caused here. And they want to start building a better future for the country and for their children. But they also said that they need help from the government to do that. They need jobs. They need more opportunities.

The leader of the 18th Street gang was more emphatic about this, but he kept saying that he needs the authorities to stop blaming them for all the ills in society. They say that they're greatly discriminated against because they are gang members.

BLOCK: Well, what are you hearing from people when they think about the cease-fire being announced by the gang leaders inside prison? What kind of control or sway do they have over their members on the outside?

KAHN: These leaders told us that what they say goes inside and outside. We went into one of the neighborhoods this morning and we're talking to the residents. And it's just an unbearable situation here. The gang members, they charge everybody a tax. So they call it rent, as a protection.

If you have any sort of business or tax here, anything, everybody pays. One woman told me that there's rumors that even the residents are going to have to start paying protection tax to gangs. So this is just a big step and it would mean a lot for them if they could end this violence and this terror that the gangs have caused them in Honduras.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, talking about the cease-fire announced today between the nation's two most powerful gangs. Carrie, thanks very much.

KAHN: You're welcome, Melissa.

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