By Ellie Wason
Travelling through the centre of Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital city, we passed some commotion around a public bus. On closer inspection, we saw that the driver’s side was littered with bullet holes. I was in Honduras volunteering on women’s rights projects and tackling youth unemployment, so I was getting to grips with the reality of the country’s issues, but the security situation and violence never failed to shock me. Thankfully learning that the driver was unharmed, I turned to my Honduran friend who nodded sadly. “Warning shots because he didn’t pay his tax.” I was even more horrified. The Government would do that? “No”, she said, “the impuesto de guerra – war tax”.
Honduras is fighting a war. It’s a war between good and evil; between temptation and a life of poverty. The impuesto de guerra, or war tax, is what some people call one of the consequences of this internal conflict, and it’s devastating the country. Extortion, effectively taxing people for the right to their lives, appears to have grown out of control in parts of Central America.
It primarily grew from turf wars between gangs, who would tell businesses operating on their ‘territory’ that they have to pay to stay there, as an assertion of their power amidst the war for control of that neighbourhood. Proving the authenticity of the threats, they displayed public murders as a warning to take them seriously.
With the authorities not controlling extortion threats, a stark reminder of the power that criminals hold in Honduras, other opportunists recognised the fear created by using gangs’ names and the practice spread rapidly.
It’s easy to see the shadow of fear that extortion now creates over the population, and its breadth is huge, covering the poor and the rich. Many taxi and bus drivers in the cities are paying several different extortionists to drive their routes. Gangs turn up at people’s homes and demand they pay them to live there, or hand over the house for the use of gang activities. In some neighbourhoods worst affected, you pay the war tax to live in your house, to drive your taxi, to run your corner shop, to travel to work, even to go to school and church.
I have friends who frequently have to change their phone numbers because they keep receiving calls from extortionists threatening them. I know a family who had to leave their house in the middle of the night, too terrified to stay because they had received threats detailing everything about their lives, with clear instructions: pay us, or we harm your family. How do the criminals obtain such detailed information? And why can’t the authorities protect their people instead of forcing them to change their lives?
It is hard to comprehend how this practice could be holding a country to ransom. People started telling me about the ‘minions’ – everyday people with different contacts and positions – who powerful criminals employ on the ground to do their dirty work. I heard about the police’s pivotal role in facilitating the deep issue of organised crime. I noticed how public projects designed to improve people’s lives, such as providing healthcare or running water, get stalled because public money just disappears into thin air. I saw for myself the vein of poverty that runs through the country and the destructive lack of opportunities for people who happen to be born in a certain place. And the puzzle pieces started to fit together.
Corruption runs deeply through many institutions in Honduras. It steers politics, business, the police, and crime. Many people have described how soon after reporting cases of extortion to the police, they received deeply threatening phone calls warning them against further contact with the authorities. Some managers of transportation companies work with criminals to extort money from their own transport drivers. Phone company staff often sell people’s data to the extortionists, so they know names and addresses when they call.
Understandably, many people don’t trust anybody to report the extortion to. Furthermore, a lack of resources, a high rate of impunity, and weak core institutions mean over 80% of cases of extortion reported are never investigated anyway. The Government has taken some action – such as lengthening prison sentences and creating an anti-extortion taskforce (the FNA), which appears to be gaining the trust of the people – but it barely seems to be denting the situation.
Poverty is both a consequence and a driver of Honduras’ problems – it’s a vicious cycle. Corruption stops resources getting to people who need it the most; basic services that are a human right often just do not trickle down to the poorest in society. This creates barriers to social mobility, which, along with the pressure of violence and an attitude of that’s how it’s done around here, provide a strong temptation to veer off the honest path.
The cost of extortion to Honduras is debilitating. Just in one year, extortion directly led to the shutdown of around 17,500 small businesses who couldn’t afford the expected payments. Foreign companies do not want to invest in the country because of the dangers of running a business there. Some of the most educated and prosperous minds are being lost to safer countries; forced migration is rampant, both internally and those who manage to escape the country. All this stalls the economy and development progress, exacerbates poverty and funnels more money into criminal networks.
For me, it’s the personal cost of extortion that has the biggest impact. The families suffering from losing their loved ones, their homes or their livelihoods. The psychological impact of constantly living in fear, and being forced to make impossible choices between paying the ever-increasing war tax, taking the risk of standing up to the criminals or fleeing the place you call home.
Honduras is a beautiful, welcoming country that has an abundance of issues bubbling under the surface. It seems to me that extortion is not what needs to be tackled: extortion is the product of a country riddled with deep problems that need to be addressed first.
“Hay poco dinero, hay poca comida, pero hay muchas balas”
“There’s little money, there’s little food, but there are many bullets” – Calle 13
Ellie studied Philosophy and Political Economy at university, and has since had an active interest in politics and development, particularly how actions of governments filter down to civil society. She spent over a year volunteering on various projects around Honduras with Progressio, and now campaigns in the UK about development issues.