Honduran authorities recently mounted a new operation aimed at dismantling extortion rackets, suggesting a growing concern within the government about the crime's devastating impact on society and the economy.
On April 30, the inter-institutional security force known as Fusina carried out "Operation Tornado," which resulted in the capture of at least 15 suspected extortionists, according to El Heraldo.
The action follows a similar series of anti-extortion arrests in February, when the Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia de Investigación Criminal - ATIC) of the Public Ministry (Ministerio Publico - MP) for the first time seized assets allegedly obtained with extortion revenues.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández hailed Operation Tornado as a success and praised citizens who provided information that helped lead to the recent arrests.
"I want to recognize the value of the people that have denounced cases of extortion and have permitted some important captures today," Hernández said at a public appearance on April 30.
"That tells us that we can have better results if the Honduran people help us," he added. "We need more information… to end this evil of extortion."
The day before the most recent raids, local media outlets reported that members of the transportation industry, who have been particularly affected by extortion, threatened a national strike to protest a perceived lack of government attention to the issue.
InSight Crime Analysis
While Operation Tornado appears to have been a response to the threat of a transportation strike, the action suggests that the Honduran government has begun to recognize the social and economic harm caused by extortion.
Powerful gangs responsible for much of the country's high levels of violence derive substantial revenues from extortion. Moreover, recent reports suggest that involvement in extortion rackets often extends beyond the gangs to include members of the police, the military and other public officials, as well as business owners themselves, making it more difficult to dismantle these networks.
Honduras' National Human Rights Commission (Conadeh) has attributed the deaths of hundreds of transportation workers in recent years to extortionists. Many workers and business owners in other sectors of the economy have also been killed for failing or refusing to pay the so-called "impuesto de guerra," or "war tax."
In addition to this deadly toll, the National Anti-Extortion Force (Fuerza Nacional Antiextorsión - FNA) estimates that extortion costs Honduras $200 million per year. For a country whose gross domestic product is roughly $20 billion, that figure represents about 1 percent of the total economy.
Representatives of the retail sector told La Prensa they pay an estimated 600 million lempiras (approximately $26.6 million) per year in extortion. Transport sector representatives said they pay some 540 million lempiras (about $24 million) per year.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion
In a recent interview with El Heraldo, Martha Salgado, the director of the Microfinance Network of Honduras (Red de Microfinancieras de Honduras - Redmicroh) said that extortion "has all of Honduras on its knees," pointing out that small businesses are often more vulnerable than their larger counterparts because they typically cannot afford private security services.
Miguel Mourra, executive director of the Tegucigalpa Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Cámara de Comercio e Industria de Tegucigalpa - CCIT) estimated that at least seven out of every 10 small businesses in Honduras has closed due to extortion. Other estimates suggest extortion may be responsible for the loss of as many as 130,000 jobs in recent years.
"We cannot ignore that there are other problems that push Hondurans to close their businesses," Mourra told El Heraldo. "However, the issue of extortion and insecurity has become the main cause."
As such, the Honduran government appears to be stepping up its efforts to combat this crime. According to FNA statistics reported by RadioHRN, the first four months of this year have seen a 15 percent increase in extortion arrests compared to the same period in 2015.