Here’s the Real Problem Driving Honduran Refugees to Our Borders: Bullies

The lunchroom shakedown of your junior high nightmares is being reenacted in Central America on an exponentially worse national scale.

Police patrol the streets of a gang-ridden neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Honduras now has the highest per capita murder rate in the world and is plagued by violence, poverty, homelessness, and sexual assaults. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Jul 28, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Scott Johnson is a regular TakePart contributor who has headed Newsweek’s Mexico and Baghdad bureaus and is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA.

They started getting targeted about five years ago. The taxicab owners and bus drivers of Honduras began receiving visits from gang members who had a message for the drivers: Pay up or else. At first, the price for not playing along was relatively minor. The drivers’ windows would get smashed at night, or their car tires would be slashed. But the threats escalated quickly and brutally. Pretty soon drivers and fare collectors who didn’t pay were turning up dead. Within a few years, the entire industry was ravaged by the extortions.

“They bled them for as much as they could,” said Kurt Ver Beek, a longtime observer of Honduras who helps lead the Association for a More Just Society, an organization based in Tegucigalpa, the capital of the Central American nation, that's working to help kids escape the cycle of violence.

Now what has happened to the transportation workers has spread to much of the country, isolating vast swaths of the economy with Mafia-like intimidation tactics, and it’s helping fuel the insecurity. This is what has led Hondurans, including thousands of unaccompanied minors, north to the United States to seek shelter and protection. After the taxis and buses, the gangs began targeting small businesses. One woman ran a successful pillow-making company near Tegucigalpa for several years before the gangs showed up. The woman, whose name was not made available because of concerns about her own safety, had three employees and made about $50 a week in profits. But a gang demanded $50 a week in protection money. Her pleas went nowhere, and eventually she closed down her business and moved in with her mother.

“It’s personalized extortion,” said Ver Beek. “It’s one thing if you get robbed and it feels kind of random, but it’s another thing if someone knocks on your door every week—week after week. Once this gets standardized, people have to get out of here. It’s a huge incentive for people to get their kids out of the country.”

Ver Beek and other experts say the scourge of extortions is in many ways worse than the plague of homicides that have made one Honduran city, San Pedro Sula, the murder capital of the world and elevated Honduras’ national homicide rates to roughly 20 times the U.S average of 4.7 murders per 100,000 people.

“It’s like the Mafia to some extent,” said Elizabeth Reavey, security analyst and Americas team manager for IJET, a security consultancy firm. “They control territory, decisions that families make, extort businesses, bus drivers, the corner chicken place. Extortion is a huge concern. Businesses know they have to pay; it’s budgeted in.”

In response, some communities in Honduras have started trying to protect themselves. Juan Sheehan, who works with Catholic Relief Services in Tegucigalpa and several other communities beset by violence, said many neighborhoods have established “community support networks.”

“These gangs are duking it out in these towns, and you don’t see heads rolling down the street, but if you have a business, they’re extorting you,” said Sheehan. Ver Beek knows one bus owner who has been paying local gangs for five years. It’s always the same kid on the same cell phone, and the driver has to drop off the money on the same day every week. He’s talked to the police about it, and sometimes they’d even investigate—but nothing would ever happen. Last week, one Honduran newspaper ran a story about gang members who threw a Molotov cocktail at a restaurant whose owner refused to pay the “protection fee.” The owner later died from burn wounds.

Local politicians have tried to come up with security initiatives, installing cameras on streets, for instance. But funds soon run out, programs fall by the wayside, and corrupt police and other officials run interference. In neighboring El Salvador, extortion and kidnapping rates continued to climb even as murder rates briefly fell during an attempt at a gang cease-fire that broke down in 2012.

“It’s the biggest reason people are leaving,” said Ver Beek. “You can’t live in a country where people show up at your door threatening you every week on schedule.”