SAN DIEGO — The deadliest prison blaze in a century has drawn attention to an unfortunate U.S. export to Central America: street gangs.
Prisons in Honduras and elsewhere in Central America are teeming with inmates who belong to gangs that have their roots in Southern California. Refugees of the region's civil wars sowed a new breed of violence on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s.
When the U.S. stepped up deportations of criminals in the 1990s, they brought their brutal habits with them to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, countries with weak law enforcement and an inadequate prison system. The result was growing violence among gang members, and widespread police abuse as authorities rounded up suspects for having gang-affiliated tattoos. Some, like many of the 355 killed in Tuesday's fire in Comayagua, were never even charged with a crime.
"It was just a perfect storm, where they arrived in a country that was unprepared and had no infrastructure," said Los Angeles police Detective Frank Flores, who has been battling U.S. gangs with Central American ties since 1999.
The victims of Tuesday's blaze were still being identified, and it was unclear exactly how many inmates had ties to U.S.-based gangs — the most widely known being Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and 18th Street. But a Honduran government report, which was sent to the United Nations this month, said 57 percent of some 800 inmates of the Comayagua farm prison north of the Central American country's capital were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members.
Alberto Mendoza, an inmate who survived the blaze, said Thursday that members of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs got along well at the prison. He described himself as a former 18th Street member.
"We are part of the same community here, not enemies," the 32-year-old Mendoza said. "(Gangs) are part of the past. If someone brings it up, we send a message and they don't bring it up again."
The gangs haven't just spread from Los Angeles to Central America. They have spread throughout the United States.
The MS-13 has an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 members and associate members worldwide, including 8,000 to 10,000 in the United States, according to the FBI's most recent National Gang Threat Assessment in 2009. Its "cliques" operate in the Atlanta, Dallas and Washington, D.C., areas.
The 18th Street gang is believed to have about the same numbers, with a presence in 44 U.S. cities spanning 20 states, according the FBI.
When the Central Americans arrived in Los Angeles, the newcomers joined to protect their own from already established gangs.
"When someone's new to the area, they get picked on," said Flores, who — according to a 2009 federal indictment — was targeted for assassination by the MS-13. "They formed out of self-protection."
Flores believes their exposure to the atrocities of war back home may have made them more prone to violence.
Jorja Leap, a professor of social welfare at University of California, Los Angeles, said the Central American gangs are unusually violent, slitting tongues of snitches and placing them on their corpses.
"These are gangs that are even feared among gangs," said Leap, who has studied them extensively. "The feds work very hard to deal with them, but they're pernicious. They're like Medusa. You lop off a head, and another grows back."
MS-13 members initiate newcomers by pummeling them for 13 seconds, a ritual known as being "jumped in."
Gang members adorn themselves with elaborate tattoos from head to toe — which make them into targets for government officials and others if they are deported to Central America. Nongovernmental organizations in Los Angeles do brisk business removing tattoos, an exercise that can take years and cost thousands of dollars.
Walter Magana, 39, has been getting monthly treatments in Los Angeles for about a year to remove tattoos from his neck and hands. He is a program administrator of Homies Unidos, a group that fields calls from families who say their loved ones are imprisoned in Central America without being charged.
Magana, a U.S. citizen born to Salvadoran immigrants, said one friend was deported to El Salvador and never accounted for. Another who was deported there was found dead with bullet wounds. No one was ever arrested.
Associated Press writer Marcos Aleman in Comayagua, Honduras, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.