Honduras’ private sector, under the banner of regional chambers of commerce, joined forces with the country’s elite anti-extortion unit in what was a fruitful collaboration. But the collaboration between businessmen and state security forces does not bode well for the country’s anti-extortion efforts.

In Honduras, corruption is so rife that a police purge over the last two years got rid of one in every three officers from the National Police. As a result, few from the business community were willing to denounce the crime of extortion. So in January 2015, the Chamber of Commerce of the Cortes department (Camara de Comercio e Industrias de Cortes – CCIC), headquartered in the violent city of San Pedro Sula, decided to act.

“We started by gathering those most affected [by extortion] who wanted to speak out, because many felt intimidated, or didn’t want to talk because they believed that the police were involved,” said Eric Spears of the CCIC.

*This article is part of an investigation on state and community responses to extortion in Central America and was carried out by InSight Crime as a joint project with the Global Initiative. See the rest of the series here.

By then, extortion payments in Honduras had spiked to an estimated $200 million a year, the bulk of which was being paid by the private sector.

“The role of the Chamber of Commerce was to bring together the ideal people with victims of the crime,” Spears explained.

The ideal people were high ranking state security officers, and officials from the elite anti-extortion unit (Fuerza Nacional Anti-extorsión – FNA) — a unit separate and independent from the national police.

“We formed a group of large companies, many of which were multinationals that had [distribution] routes here. The chamber summoned the police and military high commands and they brought in extortion experts.”

An Exclusive Channel of Communication

“Talking about extortion was taboo,” said Spears. “The problem was, many would tell us: ‘I go to denounce the crime [to the police station] and the one extorting me is the one receiving my complaint’.”

Such mistrust was understandable at the time. Omar Rivera, the head of Honduras’ Police Depuration Commission recalled that “police were practically allied with the gangs [back then], especially with the MS13.”

The committee quickly began operating behind closed doors, each company designating a committee member — generally the same individual in charge of their company’s extortion payments. And intelligence sharing began, with companies providing all the information they could to the authorities. The information was a gold mine for the FNA to start dismantling extortion structures.

Authorities also provided personalized security services to the group of companies involved by planning protected convoys into gang-controlled territories for distribution trucks to do their rounds unmolested.

The committee’s success was such that it was eventually dissolved.

“The information keeps flowing, without the necessity for us to gather,” Spears said. “The day a radical change comes, we will bring the committee together again.”

Rebuilding Communities’ Trust

In the city of La Ceiba, the private sector’s role against extortion went beyond passing information to being instrumental in boosting trust in the FNA. In the city on the coast of Honduras, home to some 200,000 people, hundreds of businesses had closed due to extortion over the years.

Due to public distrust, there was very little that the FNA could do to address extortion, and in 2016, the Attorney General’s Office and USAID launched a local campaign in an effort to address this problem. Dubbed “Corte la extorsión” (End extortion) the campaign encouraged victims of extortion to report the crime to the FNA. Flyers were handed out, radio ads for the anti-extortion hotline were aired, and FNA high ranking officials made appearances on television, urging victims to denounce. A public stand was even set up in La Ceiba’s central plaza.

“People didn’t stop [at the stand] at first. Some would grab a brochure and keep on walking. They would stare, circling around the stand, but no one would come close,” a local non-profit director, who wished to remain anonymous, remembered. “But with time people started stopping, and even sitting down.”

The key to the campaign’s success, he says, were a few businessmen who fully committed themselves to kick-starting change.

“The FNA and businessmen started gathering. What we discovered is that you didn’t need to reach everyone, but just a few champions who would relay the message of trust to others to denounce.

“Among them, a few raised their hands, leaders who said ‘no more, we’re going to confront this head-on.’ That sparked a strong campaign within the private sector.”

The FNA did its bit, building its cases on tapped phone calls and other evidence so victims wouldn’t have to testify in court.

“The then-head of the FNA himself told them: ‘if you don’t trust [my men], call me directly. Instead of putting in a complaint, call me, I’ll handle it’,” the non-profit director remembered, noting that the official would hand out his personal phone number.

Businessmen’s Help: At What Cost?

Despite its successes, the private sector’s participation in the fight against extortion raises the issue of an uneven access to justice.

The FNA’s resources are finite, and every mobilization of men and vehicles for convoys to protect large companies was an opportunity cost, diverting time and resources away from others in need.

By Spears’ own admission, “the benefits didn’t trickle down” and only its members benefited from the committee. In La Ceiba, a June 2017 report by the Woodrow Wilson Center noted that the FNA unit “seems to attend mostly to the needs of businessmen and economic elites, while the general population did not express high hopes with regard to extortion as those with greater economic resources who receive direct support from authorities.”

So although the Chamber of Commerce sensed a decrease in extortion, “the perception of the majority of the population … is that extortion and petty crime has gone up,” the report says.

“If something unusual but unrelated to extortion comes up, say for example an assault, I’ll just put in the [Whatsapp] group and send the coordinates and straight away the high commands are looking at it in real time … stolen merchandise has often been recuperated that way,” Spears said casually, underlining how easily this collaboration could quickly be perverted.

Direct and unregulated contact between powerful economic actors and security elements carries the risk of the privatization of state security services. This risk may be heightened in Honduras due to the country’s history of rampant corruption.

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.