Sagrario waits for us in the darkness of her room in a neighborhood market in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. She prays for our lives and asks God that our meeting is fruitful while hiding her legs, numb from polio, under a cushion. Her sister, who will be present throughout the interview, is responsible for security here: she came to get us at the neighborhood’s entrance to bring us to the family’s house, closed the windows, locked the gates behind us, sent kids away to play around the house and once in a while, murmurs “Amen” for each prayer Sagrario throws to the sky between her responses.
– What is it like living in a neighborhood controlled by gangs?
– We no longer go outside the house. After 9 p.m. it is already very dangerous. We cannot send our kids alone to the church for fear that something will happen, or that the gangs will recruit them, responds Sagrario.
– Nilson knew that they would kill him if he didn’t pay the rent?
– Yes. He had plans to leave the country. He wanted to take me to the United States with him.
Sagrario met Nilson Medina, who soon after would be her husband, through a friend from a church they attended. At the time, Medina installed audio systems for cars, and this later became his profession.
– What was he like?
– He was very cheerful, very helpful. An excellent father and a huge football fan. He used to love food. On Sundays, market days, he would buy food and we would sit down to watch his favorite team, the Olimpia, from here in Tegus.
– Is it difficult to have your own business in Honduras?
– It is difficult. Getting loans is complicated and you can’t find a guarantor.
– How long did it take you all to set up the studio for electronic facilities
– We saved for two years. We saved up $500, which we invested, and then we moved gradually. After the first rental payment, we had to buy tools for the business, and we even bought a motorcycle for errands.
– What happened to the shop?
– Barrio 18 extorted us. They asked Nilson for payments. First they asked him for the motorcycle and Nilson gave it to them. Then they asked for $50 weekly, which is when the business started to decline. We lost $50 that we could have used to buy shoes and food for our kids.
Later they were asked for $2500. Nilson and Sagrario did not have that amount.
– What did you do to resolve the problem?
– Even with fear, we kept working even though we didn’t want to keep the business open. We had to eat.
One Wednesday at 11 a.m., five days after asking him for money that would have taken years to pay, they killed Nilson Medina. Before he had made even one audio installation that day.
They wanted to make him an example so that the people could see what the gangs were capable of, concludes Sagrario.
* * *
The extortionists in Honduras are an institution founded on fear and impunity. It is a phenomenon that leaves mountains of corpses, taxis and buses burned to char, and a market in which Hondurans, fearing for their lives, move tens of thousands of dollars.
The “war tax,” as it is called, is a monster that has left approximately 18,000 businesses closed or bankrupt, according to data from the Chamber of Commerce. It is bolstered by an impunity plaguing the country. A according to figures from the Interior Ministry, 20 percent of the crimes committed here are ever prosecuted.
Today in Tegucigalpa, business people and their employees, especially those working in transportation, are being extorted by at least five gangs and bribing or war tax is something inevitable. If they approach you, you pay them, and if you don’t, they kill you.
And it all started as if an act of kindness.
In the 1990s, this “tax” was more like gang charity, help for the marginalized: young gang members stood on the street asking for money just to get through the day. No one was obliged to pay. No one was murdered if they refused.
Francisco Canales, 34, a former member of the Mara Salvatrucha and one of the founders of the gang Leeward Locos Salvatrucha, tells us in an abandoned building in downtown San Pedro Sula about the time when “he copied the attitude of gang members deported from the United States.”
“In the beginning, around 1994, the members of the Mara Salvatrucha did not have a way to survive economically, and it was easy to stand in the corner to ask for 10 or 20 cents then. The next day we would see how to resolve our (financial) problems. We did not expect to solve our problems with the money given by the people. That wasn’t business. Just a way to pass the day.”
Gradually the gangs discovered that it was easier to blackmail than to sell drugs and the voluntary contributions became mandatory, according to Francisco. “On the street, it is simply ‘the profit’. I think that calling it a war tax is a big mistake. It gives the activity and the gangs an institutional, almost governmental character,” he comments.
* * *
From the fourth floor of the offices of the Dirección Nacional de Transporte (DNT) in Tegucigalpa, the employees of Yovanny Dubón look like ants. They carry paper as ants carry twigs, shouting loudly from one floor to the other. It’s payday and there is tension in the air. It seems far from the cold atmosphere of the run down building where we talked with Canales, but nothing is too far to be touched by the rotteness of the Honduran state.
Dubón, a dentist by training and national director of Honduran transportation, has fired 300 of his workers for suspected links to gangs that blackmail or extort. So we could talk to him, he had to empty his office besides the bodyguards who sat behind us, the alongside the national flag, and a large photo of the Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández. We begin to explain that we want to ask how his department is confronting the problem of extortion in the transportation industry. One of the guards interrupts and suggests that the interview be conducted in English.
– How many taxis and buses are in Tegucigalpa? – We asked him in English, in a room full of Spanish-speakers, feeling the eyes of the security guards fixed on our necks.
– We have 7,300 taxis in Tegucigalpa, the majority of which are assigned to stands: about 5000. The other 2300 move without a fixed route. And there are 1400 buses. Many of them pay the extortions- says Dubón.
– How much do the drivers pay in terms of extortion?
– Some pay 10 dollars per week. Others pay more, he responds.
Assuming all of the taxi drivers pay 10 dollars in war tax (possibly an underestimate), extortionists are making $80,000 a month just in the capital, and that is without counting money made from the bus routes. That is $80,000 taken out of the local economy, distributed among five gangs. But regardless of the size of the amount, according to Dubón, the drivers trust the extortionists who threaten them that the state that promises security. “You know what? They- the drivers- are happy to pay the war tax, more than to pay the state taxes,” says Dubón.
* * *
Enrique Joss does not agree. The former taxi driver said the war tax has ruined his life. He was a driver in this city for more than two decades. He was attacked seven times, threatened with death and kidnapping. He said he has had guns and knives pointed at him.
We speak to him in his house the top of one of the hills surrounding Tegucigalpa, a small wooded Parthenon in a poor neighborhood. His house is a monument to fear. A year ago, he left this hill for the last time. Inside, his chairs and dining table are covered in drying laundry. The patio is too dangerous, even though it is guarded by images of the Virgin of Suyapa. Enrique received us with his granddaughter in his arms. He smokes non-stop as he talks, occasionally standing up to look out the window of the room.
“I was waiting for my turn to exit the taxi stand where I worked when a girl about 14 years old came and gave me a cell-phone. ‘They call you,’ she said. In the beginning, I wanted to hold it, but I ended up answering. I listened as they asked for money from me and all the drivers where I worked. The renta, war tax, then. We are the mafia, they shouted. I hung up quickly and returned the phone to the girl.
“Three days after that, there was another kid, knee on the ground, like an action film, pointing a 9 mm at me. The pistol clicked twice and nothing, no bullets. That day I was lucky. God gave me an opportunity that I cannot waste.
“A week later they killed another friend. Here extortions are like this, if you don’t pay, they kill you or any of your friends.”
Taxi drivers are targets of gunfire more than any other occupation in Honduras. A report by the National Commissioner of Human Rights estimates that from 2012 to October, 2014, at least 220 taxi drivers have died in violent circumstances, seven per month. And of the 174 bloody events related to taxi drivers registered in the last two years, the police have captured the perpetrators in only five cases. The majority of these cases of homicide are related to blackmail or extortion.
The day the pistol failed at Enrique’s head, none of the drivers took home much money. The drivers from that stand got together and decided to stop working for a few days — as is usual among those who can’t pay the “tax” — because the Mafia, the gang of extortionists, could see who had understood the message. They understood that they have to pay or continue to die.
Gradually the drivers joined the strike even though the Mafia continued to extort them with death threats. Eventually, all returned except Enrique and the last one to be killed. They climbed back into their taxis, caught between working so as not to die and dying to work.
– How much money did the extortionists ask of you at your taxi point?
– A huge amount, answered Vicente, as if unwilling to reveal too much.
– Did you report what happened to you?
– No. Well, I tried. But the police here don’t help. I went running to the police station close to the taxi stand and told them what happened. “They had tried to kill me!” The policeman there just responded: “You are already dead. File a complaint with the Director General of Investigation.”
“After that, I returned to my house and parked my taxi.”
Enrique has not returned to work since then and lives on what his daughters give him.
* * *
Ever Mejía, Deputy Commissioner of the police and director of the National Anti-extortion Force, has done his duty. On his desk, he has sheets of paper with statistical facts that he will drop throughout our conversation and once in a while add more numbers as he gets them from the phone.
In the year 2010, the Honduran National Police created a small, specialized police unit as a response to more and more frequent complaints of extortion. In 2013, the unit became the National Anti-extortion Force (NAF), under the control of National Defense and Security Council, an inter-agency force that combines the national police force with the Public Ministry and the military police, this last force a recent creation of President Hernandez.
Currently “it is one of the best units supported by the government,” Ever Mejía, Deputy Commissioner of Police and the NAF’s director said.
“We are responsible for everything having to do with the extortion crime. We investigate how the groups operate, and proceed to capture them almost daily,” Mejía said.
According to the information from Deputy Commissioner Mejía, the NFA received 932 complaints of extortion this year, 675 less than the previous year. As of October of 2014, they detained 828 people accused of extortion. Four hundred and seventy-seven of those cases have been prosecuted, although this did not always lead to imprisonment.
“The issue of extortion is huge,” Mejía said. “It is a lifestyle these days. We no longer have isolated extortionists, isolated gang members. Now we have wives, mothers, and children of extortionists forming parts of gangs. This is a complete industry. Extortion has become a part of the culture of our society.”
– Who are involved in collection the extortion payments?
– Gangs and basically any one who dares to make extortion calls: the neighbor’s son, an acquaintance, whoever. I should clarify that we have also found members of the same transportation union to be extortionists. There are also fictional groups created by the same drivers, assistants, conductors, presidents or treasurers to continue extorting and make profits.
– Where does all this money go?
– The best way for them to launder the money is to buy more buses and taxis. Thus we see that those who were simple bus driver assistants are now owners of entire fleets of buses. They also launder the money buying arms, drugs, and goods that later supply business that they open with the same money from extortions.
– Are there any police involved in claiming the war tax?
– Yes, of course. We have captured people that have ended up being police in service.
* * *
Luis Cano, president of one of the association of drivers of Tegucigalpa, dedicates one day of the week to paying the war tax. On that day, his drivers don’t receive even one dollar from the buses belonging to the 14 companies in his association. That day, they work exclusively for the gangs, some of whom, he said, have police on the payroll.
“At first, we took our complaints to the authorities and they didn’t do much because we are drivers. Do you understand me? When lawyers, journalists, or higher personalities started dying, then they took it seriously, but by that time, the gangs were already very well organized,” says Cano.
Now paying the war tax has become normal routine for the driver. They are resigned to it. Mondays and Saturdays, the leaders of the transportation unions, their conductors, and their assistants do not receive their a salary. Cano, himself is responsible for making the deposits to the gangs that extorted them, generally in accounts at Elektra.
“Currently the units of our association pay 25 dollars weekly to each gang. Doing the numbers, with 680 buses that we have and the 800 that urban transportation has, we are paying more than 200 thousand dollars per month. Right now we pay the same to five gangs,” Cano said.
–When was the last time a transportation worker died due to extortions?
– Just here, two blocks, two weeks ago, a coworker was killed. So far in 2014, we have lost 42 coworkers solely in the buses sector. And at least 10 or 12 passengers who are our clients. We want to give a quality service, but we have to pay $300 weekly, we can’t. In a month, we are losing $200.
– The director of transportation told us that they prefer to pay the extortionists rather than pay the taxes. Is this true?
– I am 100 percent certain that whichever driver you interview will tell you that they don’t want to pay, but they have to do so. Here they kill up to the senior posts of transportation that have five security guards.
“How come they cannot kill me?” Cano said he wonders. “In Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, the tax is a killing machine. We lose coworkers and our buses are burnt. I believe that our best alternative is the support of the international community.
“Here we are screwed until the police are involved with the extortions, to some extent. We have evidence, videos, police patrols collecting the war tax. This scares us, we don’t want to put allegations on those who extort us.”
It is not only the transportation industry that is affected. According to the Tegucigalpa Chamber of Commerce, 70 thousand jobs have been lost to businesses bankrupted by extortion. But Rafael Medina, executive director of the Chamber is more optimistic in his general vision of Honduras.
In 2013, CCIT did a study about the economic impact of extortion and affirmed that since the introduction of the National Anti-extortion Force, they have seen a decrease in extortions of between 12 and 15 percent. According to Medina, one of the principal weapons of the NAF has been what he calls “the culture” of reporting crimes. Before the creation of the NAF, he says, few people in the city bothered to report extortion to the police.
“Now I recommend it to the entire world. You must file a complaint in these cases,” says Medina. “We have developed a manual that you can download from our website. It tells you how to act in case of an extortion,” he added.
– Have you ever been a victim of extortion?
I received a call once, but I followed the anti-extortion manual. I changed my number and stopped taking calls from unknown numbers.
– Did you file a complaint?
– I did not file it. I just had a hunch that the caller was just fishing.
He meant the caller didn’t necessarily have any way to follow up on his threats. But he insisted “the police complaint has to be filed immediately.”
* * *
In the hill-top barrio where ex-taxi driver Enrique Joss hides out, that warning is meaningless.
“The authorities are not going to come to protect your house,” he said.
Then he stands to indicate the interview is at an end and returns to the window, as if to keep on eye out for approaching danger.
“They let this problem grow too much and it is now a part of our society,” Joss said. “If you report the extortionists to the police, it is impossible to know if someone from the gang is listening. Look, it’s like a job.
He turned to us and said, “You studied journalism, then you became a journalist, and are going to meet thousands of journalists. The same with extortionists, you will meet thousands of people like them. The worst is that you don’t know whom to trust, until now they have captured two of our coworkers for being linked to extortionist gangs. Our own coworkers extorted us.” he said.
And protection cannot even be found with the gangs themselves, even if extortion is called protection money, Joss said.
“Here, any fool can come and make you pay up if he feels like it, and none of the gangs offer you protection,” Joss said. “It is not important to them that others come to make you pay too. Only one thing that matters to them is your money.”
Joss ended with a phrase that we have heard a few times: “One does not pay for protection, you are paying so that they don’t kill you.” Joss extends his hand and says goodbye.
Some names have been changed for the safety of the interviewees.
This story was produced together with Round Earth Media and co-reported by Marlon Bishop from NPR’s Latino USA.