SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (AP) — Honduras' two biggest and most dangerous street gangs declared an unprecedented truce Tuesday, offering peace in the world's most violent country in exchange for rehabilitation and jobs.
A spokesman for the Mara Salvatrucha, identified only as Marco, said the gang will commit to zero violence and zero crime in the streets as a first-step show of good faith. He spoke to reporters from a prison cell in San Pedro Sula, the Central American country's northern business capital and one of the world's most violent cities.
"Our truce is with God, society and authorities. We ask society and authorities to forgive us for the damage we have done," Marco said.
Minutes later, a leader of the rival 18th Street gang gave a separate news conference from another prison cell, saying his gang offers the same as the Mara Salvatrucha, "if the government will listen." His face was covered by a scarf and he didn't give his name.
The truce, patterned after one between the same two gangs in neighboring El Salvador, has been worked out over the last eight months with mediation by Roman Catholic Bishop Romulo Emiliani of San Pedro Sula.
President Porfirio Lobo said Monday that he was backing efforts by the church leader, saying he personally offered his support. But there has been no official government response so far.
Emiliani said last week when announcing the impending truce that the gangs need government help to break away from their criminal lives, including extorting money from businesses to finance their war with each other. He said authorities should try to turn Honduras' prisons into rehabilitation centers.
In El Salvador, authorities say the truce that began last year has sharply lowered the number of violent deaths. According to reports from Salvadoran public security authorities, homicides have dropped about 52 percent in the 14 months of the truce.
But there is skepticism that a gang truce could reduce violence that dramatically in Honduras, which is said to have the highest homicide rate in the world with anywhere from 85 to 91 killings per 100,000 people. About 20 people die violently every day.
A 2010 U.N. crime report said only 30 percent of the killings are the result of gang-on-gang violence.
"The dynamic of violence in the country goes beyond gangs and reflects the existence of multiple actors that are difficult to pinpoint," said Julieta Castellanos, the National University of Honduras rector whose son and a friend were slain in 2011, allegedly by Honduran police and not gang members.
She said she is concerned the agreement will mean even less criminal prosecution in a country with an enormously high impunity rate.
The 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha are the country's biggest gangs, formed by Central American immigrants in U.S. prisons who later overran this small Central American country as their members were deported back home. Both engage in dealing drugs and charging extortion fees under threat of death. The 18th Street gang has said its members are being targeted by police death squads, not by rival gang members.
Marco said the gangs will stop recruiting as part of the truce, but they won't immediately stop extorting small businesses, bus and taxi drivers or everyday citizens, a major source of income. That's a major criticism of the truce so far in El Salvador, even though the government reports that extortion there is down.
"Let's go step by step," Marco said. "First zero crime and zero violence, stop the violence. And to stop the violence that's hurting human beings, we will talk about ways to find alternatives."
The two gang leaders who talked with journalists emphasized that so many young men go into the gangs because there are no legitimate jobs or opportunities, and they emphasized the need for work.
"We ask the government to help us so our young people learn a trade and don't turn out like us," Marco said. "I want my son to be a doctor or a cameraman, not a gangster."
Adam Blackwell, the Organization of American States' ambassador for security affairs, said the dialogue with the Honduran gangs started when he and Emiliani visited prisons in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa and met with members of both groups.
Blackwell played an active role in negotiating the truce between the same two gangs in El Salvador.
"I use the term peace process to define what's happening in El Salvador and now here. Violence in Central America is at the same levels as in countries at war," he told The Associated Press. "You have to start building trust from somewhere and the community, the street, will tell us right away if it's working or not, whether they feel better. We'll all be able to see that."