Nervous residents tried to finish their Christmas shopping Friday but became terrified and ran for cover when rumors circulated that the "Mara" street gangs were gathering for battle.
"I was buying some shoes when somebody shouted, 'here come the Maras' and everybody started running," said shopper Norman Moreno, describing a brief midday panic at the city's central plaza.
The panic spread as sobbing women and crowds of men ran looking for cover; police cars hurried to the scene, but failed to find the cause of the panic. One police officer said the panic may have been caused by the explosion of some fireworks — a Christmas tradition here — which the crowd interpreted as gun shots.
The Thursday massacre has made Honduras' anti-crime campaign resemble an open war between street gangs and authorities, with over 1,000 soldiers patrolling the outskirts of the city and police searching slums for the killers.
In a message left on the bus' windshield, the gunmen claimed they were part of a previously unknown revolutionary group opposed to the death penalty, one of the main campaign issues in next year's presidential campaign.
The message also included threats against congressional President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, a death penalty supporter and one of four contenders for the ruling National Party's 2005 presidential nomination.
Speaking to reporters at the morgue, Lobo Sosa said the attack "just reinforces my view that we have to revive the death penalty," which was abolished in the 1950s.
"We should not yield an inch," Lobo Sosa said. That was the same attitude adopted by President Ricardo Maduro, who visited the scene of the attack Friday and called it "cold-blooded and premeditated."
"This is a desperate act by the criminals in response to our struggle against them, but we will not retreat," Maduro told reporters. "These evil man seek to intimidate us and destabilize the country, but they will not be able to."
Assailants cut off the city bus filled with Christmas shoppers, then opened fire in the San Pedro suburb of Chamelecon, 125 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Six children were among the victims, and bloodied bodies littered the muddy dirt road shortly after the attack.
Some 53 people were aboard the bus; 14 were wounded and being treated at local hospitals, and 11 escaped unharmed or with only very slight injuries. Most of the wounded were listed in serious but stable condition.
A suspected gang member was later arrested carrying several automatic weapons and driving a car spotted at the scene. The violence was the worst attack in years in a country known for lawlessness and crime.
Survivor Glenda Ramos, recovering at a San Pedro hospital from two bullet wounds to the chest and shoulder, said she was unable to see the assailants, but reacted quickly to save her 3-year-old son.
"I threw my boy to the floor (of the bus) and covered him with my body," Ramos, 22, said from her hospital bed. Describing the nightmarish scene inside the bus, Ramos said "people kept screaming, and the shooting continued for what seemed like 15 minutes."
"My son is fine, thank God," Ramos said.
Human rights groups have criticized some aspects of the anti-gang crackdown, saying the laws encourage vigilanteism and that many suspects are jailed just for having tattoos, a gang symbol. But the gangs' previous responses to the crackdown — anti-government messages left alongside dismembered or decapitated corpses — has won them the little sympathy.
A note left in Thursday's attack also promised more violence, saying "people should take advantage of this Christmas, because the next one will be worse."
San Pedro Sula has been a hotbed of gang violence, and was the scene of a deadly fire that killed over 100 gang members at a local prison in May.
Maduro, whose own son was kidnapped and killed in 1997, took office in 2001 promising to eliminate the country's prolific gangs, many of which began on the street of Los Angeles in the 1980s and spread to El Salvador and Honduras after members were deported back to those countries.
Congress approved a law in August 2003 that set 12-year prison sentences for gang members, and El Salvador, another country struggling to fight gang activity, followed suit. While criticized, the measure was popular among Hondurans tired of crime.
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.