Street gangs in Honduras are forcing transport workers to participate in extortion rackets, highlighting the vulnerability of a group already hit hard by such gangs.
Since 2018, the country’s anti-gang unit has arrested 21 bus sector employees who are suspected of collaborating with gangs in extortion schemes, La Tribuna reported. The gangs use the bus workers as intermediaries to collect the extortion fees from other public transport operators.
The tactic emerged after increased police presence at transport terminals made it more difficult for gang members to shake down bus drivers and owners through phone calls or handwritten notes. The employees, who could face prison sentences of up to 20 years, claim the gangs pressured them into the extortion schemes. Authorities counter that the accomplices are often seeking drugs from gang members, or merely their friendship, according to La Tribuna.
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In April, Honduras saw hundreds of transport workers protest, demanding that the government take action against extortion. The protests, however, ultimately led to a rise in extortion fees, increasing from 900 lempiras (about $36) per week to 1,200 (about $47).
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Gang members co-opting bus workers to collect extortion fees represents a further deterioration of security conditions for Honduras’ transport workers, who have been terrorized by gangs for years.
Extorting the public transport sector is not a new phenomenon. The practice has long bankrolled street gangs in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In Guatemala, it was estimated that the extortion of buses generated as much as $70 million a year for gangs in 2017.
In El Salvador, extortion is a particularly important source of income for the MS13. Public transportation companies there have even made payments part of their formal accounting, deducting weekly payments from drivers’ salaries.
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Yet it’s not uncommon for drivers and transport operators to be turned into accomplices in extortion rackets. An informant in a case in El Salvador revealed how bus operators can turn into middlemen for gang leaders who systematically extort other bus owners.
When bus drivers and their operators refuse to pay extortion fees, they are threatened or killed. In the first seven months of 2019, some 50 public transport workers have been murdered in Honduras.
In March, Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández launched a new police force to provide security on public transport. But transport workers have little reason to trust authorities.
Corrupt security forces and public officials have been found to be involved in extortion rackets, and bringing extortion threats to the police can be futile as well. Of 431 instances of extortion presented to San Pedro Sula’s anti-extortion police division in 2018, only one led to a court judgement.