Honduran gangs had killed before, leaving dismembered bodies and grisly messages in defiance of President Ricardo Maduro's no-tolerance campaign against them. But when gunmen shot...

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SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Honduran gangs had killed before, leaving dismembered bodies and grisly messages in defiance of President Ricardo Maduro’s no-tolerance campaign against them.

But when gunmen shot up a bus Thursday night, leaving 22 adults and six children dead along with a promise of more violence, they raised the stakes in what increasingly looks like a war between authorities and Central America’s criminal underworld.

“These are people you can’t even call humans, they are animals,” Rosa Juarez said yesterday, standing with dozens of people waiting to retrieve the bodies of loved ones at the morgue in San Pedro Sula, a coastal city 125 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Juarez thought her cousin and two of the woman’s sons, who were out doing some last-minute Christmas shopping, were among those killed when suspected gang members fired assault rifles into the bus after blocking it in a poor community on the outskirts of town.

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Bloodied bodies were found scattered along the muddy road. The driver was slumped dead over the steering wheel. His assistant also died. Fourteen passengers were hospitalized with wounds, and only 11 escaped unharmed or with slight injuries in the worst attack in years in a country known for widespread lawlessness.

The gunmen left a message stuck to the bus windshield claiming they were part of an unknown revolutionary group opposed to reinstating the death penalty in Honduras, one of the main campaign issues in next year’s presidential campaign. Executions were stopped in the 1950s.

Police spokesman Wilmer Torres said the note left in the bus attack promised more violence, saying “people should take advantage of this Christmas, because the next one will be worse.”

The message also included threats against the president of Congress, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who is a death-penalty supporter and one of four contenders for the ruling National Party’s presidential nomination.

Speaking to reporters at the morgue, Lobo Sosa said the attack reinforced his determination to revive the death penalty. “We should not yield an inch,” he said.

Maduro took an equally tough stance when he arrived.

“This is a desperate act by the criminals in response to our struggle against them, but we will not retreat,” Maduro said. “These evil men seek to intimidate us and destabilize the country, but they will not be able to.”

Human-rights groups have criticized some aspects of the government’s crackdown on gangs, saying it has encouraged vigilantes and charging that many suspects are jailed just for having tattoos, which can be a gang symbol.

But with crime soaring and the ranks of gangs swelling, the public has shown little sympathy for those concerns. Stepping up the crackdown has become a major issue as presidential hopefuls begin campaigning to replace Maduro, whose term ends in January 2006.

Maduro, whose own son was kidnapped and killed in 1997, took office in 2001 promising to eliminate gangs, many of which began on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s and spread to El Salvador and Honduras after members were deported back to their homelands.

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.