August 6, 2014

Extorting the lifeblood out of Honduras

"For not wanting to give up his house"
Photo:  El Tiempo, Honduras

Extortion is a massive problem in Honduras. It's sucking the life out of businesses, transportation providers, entrepreneurs, neighborhoods, even schools and churches. Yes, even schools and churches in some areas have to pay extortion. Teachers and children are extorted daily in some schools. One 11-year-old was killed recently after his young extortioners graduated from charging him 10 lempiras a day at school to kidnapping him. Lots of kids quit school because it's too dangerous for them to go. Gangs pressure boys as young as 10 years old to join and girls are pressured to become 'girlfriends' or prostitutes.

If you are like I was, you probably have a hard time understanding what this extortion is. I used to think of extortion like blackmail – person-A did something and person-B extorts money to keep the secret – or protection payments – business owner pays a gang to protect his business against robberies by the same gangs that are doing the extortion. Especially confusing was how anyone could be extorted by telephone. This extortion is different; it boils down to 'You have something; I want it. Pay or die'. Anyone who has anything may be required to give up part or all of it to the extortionists. The extortion demand may be made in person, by someone hired to carry a note, or by telephone.

I was in a doctor's office when the doctor left to take a telephone call. She was very upset when she came back and I asked what was wrong. "Extortionists!", she said. "They've been calling me for weeks, saying I have to pay or they will kill my sons. They know their names and where they go to school! We want to get out of this damn country! We are trying to emigrate to Europe. We have friends there." "Did you report it to the police?", I asked. "Yes. The police do nothing."

Many people, right after filing a complaint with the police, report that they and/or their families have been threatened by phone. Who is calling, how do they have their phone number, and how would they know the person filed a complaint unless the police were involved? A few months ago, an entire extended family who were running a day care center was wiped out just two days after one of the women filed an extortion complaint with the police. It's not unusual that children, even babies, are killed in these massacres.

In La Ceiba, so many people were being threatened by telephone that many gave up their landline phones. After decades of no phone lines being available from the government monopoly – we were on the Hondutel waiting list beginning in 2002 and never were able to get a phone line! – Hondutel was so desperate that they began sending employees door-to-door to solicit customers for the estimated 20,000 excess lines they now had available. However, we were warned by several neighbors not to get a Hondutel line as many of their friends were reporting extortion attempts right after their new line was installed. They believed that Hondutel employees were selling the personal information of new customers.

Honduran police have captured some of the 'collectors' carrying as much as L.170,000, presumably a day's collections, but they rarely or never arrest the bosses behind these criminal enterprises. Based on what comes out in the news, a lot of the collectors are women and minors and I don't know if police even look for the bosses. In some cases the police are the bosses behind this. I can tell you this without a doubt, anyone who is making L.100,000 a day or a week or even a month, is not going to spend his days beating the streets around town in the hot sun to collect money. He would play the executive and hire other people to do it for him. It's just like with the paid assassinations: the assassins (who are a dime a dozen and easily replaced) are sometimes captured and prosecuted, but the persons who paid for the assassinations are never, ever prosecuted in Honduras.

In some areas, you pay to live there, you pay to work there, you pay to drive a taxi there, you pay to operate a corner store or restaurant, you pay to go to school. Many small and medium Honduran businesses have closed due to extortion – the 'tariff' imposed is greater than any profit made. Many others have had to cut jobs to compensate for the money lost to extortion.

A frail old lady had a small stand on the street in La Ceiba where she sold backpacks and purses. Finding a job in Honduras when you are over 35 is very difficult. When you are in your 60's, forget about it! But guess what, people in the "third age", tercera edad as it's called in Spanish, still have to live, they have to eat, and they still need a roof over their heads, so this enterprising woman started her own little business where she was eking out a very modest living. That was until the extortionists latched on to her. Initially she paid what they asked out of fear, but when they increased her weekly payment to L.1,000, she said that left nothing for her. She decided to close her stand. What will she do now?

People have abandoned their homes to the gangs in the most dangerous areas. They can't sell their houses because who would buy a house in such an area, and even if there was a buyer, guess what? You have to pay the gangs $20,000 or whatever they decide you owe to sell your home, too. What is the penalty for not paying? Death. Enough bus owners, taxistas, business owners, and other extortion victims have been killed to prove that this isn't an empty threat.

Why don't people stand up to this extortion?

Many people have stood up to the extortionists. Emilio Sánchez did.

Emilio Sánchez Rodríguez (40) ran a small business out of his home in Comayagüela. On July 23, he commented to his mother that he was living in fear and that it was better that he sell his house and go somewhere else to rent. The next day he was abducted by gang members who took him to a 'casa loca' where he was tied up, tortured and burned. After hours of torture and mutilation, he was taken, still alive, to a street near his home where he was shot 40 times in broad daylight at 1 pm in the afternoon. A note was left on his body: "For not wanting to give up his house, sincerely, the diec18cho" (signifying the gang taking responsibility). The police have no suspects. 'Casas locas' are houses that have been taken over by gangs and are used for gang activities.

Emilio Sánchez left behind a wife and five children who now have the choice of living every day in fear that they will be next or abandoning their home. The day after Sánchez was killed, a young person was killed and his body was left with a sign that said that the rival MS gang "put him down because he didn't do what we said". The woman with the day care center mentioned above reported it to the police. That cost, if I remember correctly, five lives and it would have been more except that four children escaped through a back window when they heard the gunshots and ran to the neighbors.

More and more frequently, people aren't just being killed, they are being tortured and horribly mutilated. Their bodies aren't being hidden in empty fields, they are being transported back to the areas where they lived and dumped in open areas to further terrorize the people. Many recent murder victims have been dumped in big sacks and have written signs placed on their bodies as a warning to others.

Some of the taxi associations in La Ceiba stood up to the extortioners and refused to pay. One by one, those taxi drivers were killed until the others relented. A lot of bus owners and their helpers have been assassinated and/or their buses burned, most likely because they refused to pay. Extortionists often threaten to kill employees, wives or children in order to coerce cooperation. It's not an empty threat.

In one La Ceiba neighborhood where the gangs were trying to take control, one man was leading the neighbors to stand up to them. He had seen what happened in a nearby area and didn't want that to happen in his colonia. He was murdered after being tortured and his body mutilated. But it wasn't only him. His university student son was also tortured and murdered as was the man's brother who was only visiting at the time. The son was a friend of El Jefe's and he wasn't "involved in anything" except going to school to try to make a better life for himself.

What are the effects of extortion in Honduras?

With only an estimated 9% of homicides in Honduras even investigated by the police, there is no way to know how many people have been killed due to extortion. In some cases, relatives or friends know and say publicly that the victim was being extorted. But it's dangerous to even talk about it.

Though there is no way to accurately quantify the effects of extortion, various studies have reported that gross income from extortion is more than a billion lempiras per year in Honduras and that 40% of the population is affected by extortion. One congressman said that he personally knows at least 100 people who are paying extortion and are afraid to go to the police. He flatly states that the police have no credibility, especially when they lie to the people about crime, and admits that victims have valid fears.

An estimated 18,000 small and medium Honduran businesses have closed during the past year due to extortion. In La Ceiba alone, an estimated 200-250 businesses closed due to extortion in the first nine months of 2013, where extorsionistas may demand L.10,000-25,000 per month and even up to L.50,000-100,000 for large businesses. Based on those local figures, I would guess that the national effect is much larger than a billion lempiras.

One Walmart-owned grocery store in La Ceiba ignored extortionists and shortly thereafter was robbed by a pickup truck load of heavily armed robbers. A cashier was killed in the robbery. A few weeks later, a second robbery resulted in the death of a customer in the parking lot. Amazingly, to the best of my knowledge, neither of these robberies made the national news.

What is the government doing?

In Decreto 16-2012, Congress changed the law to provide for more severe sentences for those convicted of extortion. The penalty now is 15 to 20 years in prison. If a death is involved, the penalty is a life sentence.

After more than a decade of serious extortion problems, in 2012 the police set up anti-extortion units (Fuerza Nacional Antiextorsión de Honduras [FNA]) initially in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, later in La Ceiba, and possibly other towns, as well a dedicated telephone tip line. It's hard to know what effect the FNA has had, but 2013 statistics released by them indicate that they received almost 2,000 complaints, captured 452 persons of which 242 have been prosecuted, and saved the victims payments of about L.36 million. So far in 2014, FNA has arrested 274 extorsionistas, including 74 minors. However, after creative police math, the previous official reports of 158 arrests in 2012, 452 in 2013, and 274 in the first six months of 2014 now somehow total 1,003 extortion arrests. The police blame the population for not reporting extortion.

FNA also says that the majority of cases have nothing to do with gangs. They say, in fact, that the transportation associations themselves are involved with some of the extortions of transportistas. Every now and then there is a show of taking back a neighborhood, but the fact is that these neighborhoods were lost long ago and the police were perfectly aware of that and did virtually nothing for years. A former police commissioner denounced that one high level police official receives L.950,000 per month as a result of his cut of the impuesta de guerra (war tax). Other police have been captured in the act of extortion but its likely that they don't even lose their job for that until and if they are prosecuted and convicted.


Have you or anyone you know been threatened by extortion in Honduras? Please leave a comment.

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