Latin America and the Caribbean

The Guardian, London
3 July 1997

by Phil Gunson, Latin American Correspondent

The murder of two teenage escapees from a juvenile detention center has renewed fears that the Honduran police are engaging in "social cleansing" operations.

The bodies of Sergio Castillo and Marvin Castro, both aged 16, were found at the end of last month in the Islas del Progreso district of San Pedro Sula, the business capital. Both had been shot in the head.

The two boys were among a group of more than 40 youths who had escaped a few days earlier from the city's El Carmen detention center.

A day after their bodies were discovered, a third child - Miguel Angel Castellon, aged 10, who was unconnected with the mass escape - was found dead in a different part of the city.

According to Bruce Harris, executive director of Covenant House Latin America (Casa Alianza), an organisation that works with street children, Castillo had run away from an abusive home when he was aged 13.

"Sergio lived on the streets and was addicted to shoe glue. He had been jailed the day before (his escape) accused of stealing a pair of shoes," Mr. Harris said.

Castro was also a glue addict. His mother had taken him to the detention center because he was a "difficult" child.

Honduras has a grim record of ill-treatment of juvenile offenders, who until recently were automatically locked up with adults.

In December 1995, the Geneva based World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) reported that at least 12 children had been tortured in Comayagua jail.

Under pressure from the OMCT and Casa Alianza, the authorities arrested the prison's director, Aquilino Sorto, earlier this year. He is said to have ordered the children to be handcuffed, with their hands behind their backs, then hung by their wrists from the wall and beaten.

Mr. Sorto was released on bail and allowed to return to work. Casa Alianza, having failed to obtain co-operation from the authorities, is preparing to take Honduras to the Inter American Human Rights Commission in connection with the case.

"I spoke to President Carlos Roberto Reina two or three weeks ago and he sent a letter to the minister of justice and the interior", Mr. Harris said. "So far, the minister has not replied, and we can't investigate because prisoners won't talk while Sorto is still director".

Abuse of children on the streets is also widespread. Cesar Humberto Reyes, aged 16, an epileptic, was found dead in San Pedro Sula in May. He had apparently been stoned to death.

In March, a street girl, Fany Cerrato, was raped by a uniformed policeman in the capital, Tegucigalpa.

In recent months, at least two other juvenile detainees have been murdered. One died at El Carmen during an escape attempt, after prison guards opened fire. The other was found dead after escaping from the El Haltillo detention center in Tegucigalpa.

Gustavo Blanco, who is responsible for the juvenile detention programme, said lethal weapons were no longer used in the centers, but that this made escapes easier "because the kids aren't afraid of non-lethal weapons".

"A lot of people want the kids sent back to adult jails," he said. "But this just shows that society doesn't understand the problem".

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