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Monday, January 30, 2006

New Honduras govt starts talks with violent gang

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Honduras' new government has started talks with one of the country's street gangs in a bid to persuade it to end its reign of terror, Security Minister Alvaro Romero said on Monday.

President Manuel Zelaya took office on Friday and has promised a crackdown on the gangs, which challenged the previous government with a series of beheadings and an attack on a bus in December 2004 that killed 28 people.

Zelaya took over from Ricardo Maduro, whose government tried to negotiate through mediators with one of the two main "maras" or youth gangs. The talks failed in 2004 after two of the gang's leaders were killed.

"One of these gangs has been in touch with me," Romero, a former army general, told Reuters in an interview. "We have been talking for one or two weeks and we are going to continue in this vein."

There are two main gangs in Honduras, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, with an estimated 30,000 members. Romero did not say which gang had been contacted.

A Catholic bishop and an evangelical minister will take part in the formal negotiations alongside government officials, Romero said.

But Zelaya's government would take a hard line against gang members, often heavily tattooed, who did not want to return to a normal life, Romero said.

"We cannot be naive in this respect," Romero said. "Those that have gone beyond the boundary of being able to reform will have to be tracked down and sent to jail."

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

Logging magnate Zelaya won elections last November against Porfirio Lobo, who wanted to bring back capital punishment for brutal murders and rapes.
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