The discovery of a mass grave in Honduras, allegedly used by the M-18 gang to bury their victims, undermines the group’s recent calls for peace talks with the government, and for an end to police abuse against them.
Police say they expect to find at least 15 bodies in a mass grave in La Lima, a city based in the northwest department of Cortes. The site was discovered June 7 following a clash with the M-18 on May 25, in which police killed seven presumed gang members. La Lima, where buildings are decked with gang graffiti, is a stronghold of the M-18 and is located in Honduras’ most violent department, where 1,774 murders were reported last year, nearly a third of the country’s total.
This grave covers an area about the size of two city blocks, and is adjacent to a football field, a school and a church in a neighborhood known as Ciudad Planeta. The size of the clandestine cemetery, and its location in a urban area, is further testimony to the M-18’s control over this district. Police say that the gang used a nearby house to hold and torture kidnapping victims while they extorted the prisoners’ families.
Government officials believe the M-18 have used the clandestine cemetery to bury their victims for several years. Some of the bodies had been buried just a month ago. It is believed that one of the people buried there is labor leader Rosa Altagracia Fuentes, who has been missing since 2008. Officials also expect to find the remains of two police officers who used to be stationed in nearby posts and have been missing for several months now. So far, remains of 13 people have been found, including three women.
The discovery of the burial ground comes amid recent efforts by the M-18 to call for dialogue with the government. Jailed gang leaders told the press, “We want to fix things, through dialogue, as civilized people.” They added that they were motivated by the killing of seven fellow-gang members in La Lima, claiming that the individuals were massacred while sleeping, and not during a confrontation with authorities. They also said police murdered the mother of one of the dead men.
This version of events was denied by Security Minister Oscar Alvarez, who called the M-18 “killing machines” during a recent visit to Ciudad Planeta. He said the gang members had been killed in a “heroic” operation by the police, and claimed the nearby safehouse was used for “rape, satanic rituals, and torture.”
The incident has now caused a rift between President Lobo’s administration and human rights groups. The government’s Deputy Security Secretary Armando Calidonio publicly criticized Sandra Ponce, the head of the Human Rights Unit in the Attorney General’s Office, for opening an investigation into the deaths of the seven alleged youth gang members. The human rights unit will examine the case to determine whether unnecessary lethal force was used.
The facts of the killing of the seven gang members have not yet become clear — the Honduran police, as well as the M-18, have been known to commit acts of brutality. The M-18’s bid for peace talks, in reaction to the recent Ciudad Planeta shootout, may just be a public relations ploy intended to draw attention to the hardline police action (and possible abuse) against gang members. But likewise, the discovery of the mass grave allows the government to draw attention, once again, to gang rather than police abuse. This may make it even more difficult for the M-18 to sound sincere when speaking of their desire for “dialogue.”