TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Assailants claiming to be members of a revolutionary group opposed to the death penalty opened fire on a public bus in northern Honduras, killing at least 28 people, including six children, and escalating an ongoing battle between gangs and a government dedicated to fighting them.
The shooting took place Thursday evening in the northern Atlantic city of Chamelecon (search), 125 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Police arrested a suspect who was driving a car similar to that identified by witnesses as having been present at the attack. The suspect is an alleged member of violent gangs that have terrorized residents, mostly in the poor neighborhoods of Honduras' major cities.
The suspect was carrying a .38-caliber pistol and several automatic weapons, police spokesman Deputy Commissioner Wilmer Torres said.
"It was an unbelievable massacre," Torres said in a telephone interview.
The assailants left a large piece of paper taped to the bus's front windshield with a message saying they represented a revolutionary group that opposes the death penalty. The message contained "vulgar words" against President Ricardo Maduro (search), congressional President Porfirio Lobo Sosa (search) and Security Minister Oscar Alvarez, Torres said.
The assailants' note warned that "people should take advantage of this Christmas, because the next one will be worse," Torres said.
The attack came just two days after Alvarez announced that authorities had uncovered plans by drug traffickers and local criminals to assassinate Maduro and his family, as well as himself.
"The reports establish that drug traffickers and organized crime have given the gang members the necessary information for them to carry out the attack against the president ... and that worries us," Alvarez said at the time.
Maduro announced Monday that he was increasing security for himself and his family after receiving death threats from criminal groups. After Thursday's attack, he visited victims at the hospital and promised to step up the attack against gangs.
"My government won't tolerate the kind of massacre that has the objective of threatening and scaring the people. ... We are reacting with force," he said.
Earlier this year, Alvarez claimed Al-Qaeda (search) was trying to recruit gang members to carry out terror attacks, but U.S. and other Central American officials have said there is no hard evidence to support that.
Lobo Sosa is one of four candidates who will compete in a primary on Feb. 20, 2005, to determine the ruling National Party's presidential candidate for November elections. Lobo has suggested instituting the death penalty for severe crimes such as murder, rape and kidnapping -- crimes for which the gang members are often accused. Honduras abolished the death penalty in the 1950s.
The bus was driving through the heavily populated neighborhood of San Isidro when a car carrying an unknown number of armed attackers cut in front of it, forcing it to stop, Torres said. The assailants jumped out of the car and began shooting, at the same time that other attackers in a second car fired from behind and then alongside the bus, he said. The police spokesman said more than 50 people were aboard the bus, the majority women and children.
Many were coming home with bags filled with gifts and food for Christmas, Torres said.
Sixteen of the victims were killed aboard the bus while 12 others, including two children and 10 women, died after being taken to a public hospital in the nearby city of San Pedro Sula, Torres said. More than a dozen others were injured.
The driver of the bus, Guillermo Salgado, also died in the attack, along with his helper, Victor Ramirez. Salgado's body was found slumped over the steering wheel.
Honduran gangs claim more than 100,000 members and control poor neighborhoods in the country's major cities, where they are known for extorting "protection" money from residents as well as committing crimes.
Maduro has waged a zero-tolerance campaign against gang activity. At his bidding, Congress approved a law in August 2003 that sentences gang members to up to 12 years in prison.
Gangs have responded with gruesome violent attacks, including the beheading and dismembering of victims whose bodies have been left in public places, accompanied by notes threatening the president.
"What happened tonight is a barbaric and cowardly act unlike very few we have seen in Honduras' history," Maduro said in an address broadcast nationally on radio and television stations. "It is an attack against all Hondurans." He was accompanied by Alvarez and Defense Minister Federico Breve.
The crackdowns in Honduras and neighboring El Salvador have driven many gang members into southern Mexico, especially the states of Chiapas, Veracruz and Oaxaca.
Some of the most powerful Central American gangs incubated on the street of Los Angeles in the 1980s and spread to El Salvador and Honduras after gang members were deported back to those countries.
The president said joint police-military operations had been launched to find Thursday's attackers and that the government was offering a $50,000 reward for information that would lead to their capture.
"I'm asking the country to have confidence in their government, to not let anyone" interfere with national security, he said.
Maduro, 59, took office in 2001. His term ends in January 2006.