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Correction: Honduras-Death Squads story

Friday - 5/17/2013, 4:09pm  ET

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) -- In a story May 13 about suspects disappearing or dying after being in the custody of the Honduran National Police, The Associated Press misquoted U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield as suggesting that the Honduran armed forces have engaged in vigilantism. In fact, Brownfield was speaking of the danger of communities carrying out vigilantism.

Brownfield's full quote was, "The option is that if we don't work with the police, we have to work with the armed forces, which almost everyone accepts to be worse than the police in terms of the mission of policing, or communities take matters in their own hands. In other words, the law of the jungle, in which there are no police and where every citizen is armed and ready to mete out justice. These are the three options, and although the National Police may have its defects at the moment, it is the lesser evil of the three available options."

A corrected version of the story is below:

AP IMPACT: Honduran police accused as death squads

AP IMPACT: Family members recount Honduran police raids where detainees turn up dead, missing

By ALBERTO ARCE

Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) -- At least five times in the last few months, members of a Honduras street gang were killed or went missing just after run-ins with the U.S.-supported national police, The Associated Press has determined, feeding accusations that they were victims of federal death squads.

In a country with the highest homicide rate in the world and where only a fraction of crimes are prosecuted, the victims' families say the police are literally getting away with murder.

In March, two mothers discovered the bodies of their sons after the men had called in a panic to say they were surrounded by armed, masked police. The young men, both members of the 18th Street gang, had been shot in the head, their hands bound so tightly the cords cut to the bone.

That was shortly after three members of 18th Street were detained by armed, masked men and taken to a police station. Two men with no criminal history were released, but their friend disappeared without any record of his detention.

A month after the AP reported that an 18th Street gang leader and his girlfriend vanished from police custody, they are still missing.

The 18th Street gang and another known as 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. Now the 18th Street gang says its members are being targeted by police death squads, described by witnesses as heavily armed masked men in civilian dress and bullet-proof vests who kill or "disappear" gang members instead of bringing them to justice.

In the last two years, the United States has given an estimated $30 million in aid to Honduran law enforcement. The U.S. State Department says it faces a dilemma: The police are essential to fighting crime in a country that has become a haven for drug-runners. It estimates that 40 percent of the cocaine headed to the U.S. -- and 87 percent of cocaine smuggling flights from South America -- pass through Honduras.

"The option is that if we don't work with the police, we have to work with the armed forces, which almost everyone accepts to be worse than the police in terms of the mission of policing, or communities take matters in their own hands. In other words, the law of the jungle, in which there are no police and where every citizen is armed and ready to mete out justice," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield said in Spanish during a March 28 video chat.

"These are the three options, and although the National Police may have its defects at the moment, it is the lesser evil of the three available options."

Alba Mejia, Deputy Director of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, said her group has documented hundreds of death squad cases in the country since 2000. The squads burst into homes with no warrants and take away young men, she said.

"We are convinced that there is a government policy of killing gang members and that there is a team dedicated to this activity," Mejia said. Federal prosecutors say they have received about 150 complaints about similar raids in the capital of Tegucigalpa over the last three years.

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