TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - The operation was quick and under the cover of night. Armed, masked men arrived in late-model SUVs, getting through the gate into the small neighborhood of humble homes. Without firing a shot, witnesses said, they took Kevin Samraid Carranza Padilla, 28, known in the gang world as "Teiker," and his girlfriend, Cindy Yadira Garcia, 19.
The next morning, Jan. 10, Honduras' major newspaper, El Heraldo, reported that police had captured Carranza, a leader of the 18th Street gang suspected in the shooting death of a police commander months earlier. It also published a photo of a shirtless, tattooed young man lying on the ground, his hands behind his back, his face partially wrapped in blue duct tape, the roll still attached. Carranza's mother, Blanca Alvarado, recognized him from his tattoos.
More than two months later, Carranza and Yadira have disappeared, The Associated Press has found. They are not in police custody, there are no criminal proceedings against them, and police now say they know nothing about the case.
"At this point," said Carranza's mother, "one can only imagine that they are dead."
Police have long been accused of operating more like assassins than law enforcement officers in Honduras, but few cases ever have been investigated. In the past year, police were alleged to have been involved in the deaths of a prominent Honduran radio journalist and the son of a former police chief - but neither killing has been solved.
Despite millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Honduras aimed at professionalizing the country's police, accusations persist.
In the last three years, the AP has learned, Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death-squad-style killings in the capital of Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the economic hub of San Pedro Sula. The country's National Autonomous University, citing police reports, has counted 149 civilians killed by police in the last two years, including 25 members of the 18th Street gang.
Even the country's top police chief has been charged with being complicit.
In 2002, a police internal affairs report accused then police prison inspector Juan Carlos Bonilla of three extrajudicial killings - and linked him to 11 more deaths and disappearances that it said were part of a police policy of "social cleansing." He was tried and acquitted on one of the three charges. The head of internal affairs unit who produced the report, Maria Luisa Borjas, was expelled from the department, and the rest of the cases, like most crimes in Honduras, were not investigated.
Last year, Bonilla was chosen to lead the national police force despite unanswered questions about his past. The U.S. Congress decided to withhold State Department funding to the police while they investigated the 2002 internal affairs report. Roberta Jacobsen, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said last week that the department is constantly reviewing information about people and institutions receiving support in Honduras, and so far, the State department can and will continue funding and training the Honduran police.
All but about $11 million has since been released based on a congressional agreement with the State Department over how counterdrug operations involving the U.S. and investigations into civilian casualties are carried out.
AP interviews with family members, witnesses and law enforcement officials paint a picture of a case in which two people associated with gangs were taken into police custody and then never heard from again.
After witnesses told Alvarado, 50, that her son had been taken by police, she went to a series of police stations in search of him. At the National Criminal Investigations Office, she was met by 20 officers, some masked, who openly played with their guns as she asked after her son and his girlfriend.
"You can look for those dogs in the Tablon," Alvarado said they told her, referring to a lot outside of the city where bodies of the executed are regularly dumped.
The modus operandi in death-squad style killings does not vary much: Masked men in bulletproof vests, traveling in large vehicles with tinted windows and no plates, roam the city in groups of 10, said an official in the Carranza investigation.
A month after Carranza's disappearance, Honduran media released a surveillance video of a similar case: five young men walking a street at night were stopped and surrounded by masked gunmen with AK-47s who pulled up in a large SUV. The gunmen fired at three men who fled. The remaining two, their hands up in surrender, were made to lie face down on the pavement - and then shot several times in cold blood.
One died instantly. The other is seen still moving after three shots from an assault weapon. He later died at a hospital.
National Police spokesman Hector Ivan Mejia would not comment on the videotape of the shootings because he said they are under investigation. He also said he knew nothing about Carranza's case, though he noted that Honduras is in the grip of gang warfare, marked by groups of assassins acting on behalf of organized crime.