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US gangs are a force in Central American prisons

US-based gangs are a major force in Central America's overcrowded prisons By The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO (AP) ' 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.

It's still unclear how many of the 355 victims of Tuesday's blaze in Comayagua 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 says 57 percent of some 800 inmates of the Comayagua farm prison were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members.

The gangs haven't just spread from Los Angeles to Central America. They have spread throughout the United States.

FBI figures show that 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, and the 18th Street gang is believed to have about the same numbers.

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