New government studies have revealed extortion of Honduras' transport sector earns criminal groups more than $27 million each year, highlighting the extent of a crime that pervades Central America.
Studies conducted by the Honduran Security Ministry found that over 15,000 buses and taxis in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, which are extorted and forced to pay a so-called "war tax," contribute an estimated $27.4 million to criminal organizations, reported El Heraldo.
The size of these profits has reportedly made extortion one of the most lucrative enterprises in Honduras, with the crime costing the transportation sector over $1.2 million monthly in the Honduran Central District -- Tegucigalpa and Comayaguela -- and over $1 million per month in San Pedro Sula. The investigation found owners of bus companies in these two places pay a daily rate of $15 to $30 per bus.
Transportation workers in Tegucigalpa recently went on strike to demand government action in the face of rising extortion. Workers told El Heraldo they asked the Security Ministry for support, but that the state advised them to continue paying the fees until a solution is found.
In the past four years at least 350 transportation sector employees have been killed, with 80 percent of these deaths related to extortion payments, reported El Heraldo.
InSight Crime Analysis
Transport extortion is part of a wider phenomenon that has devastating economic and social consequences in Honduras. Gangs in Tegucigalpa were estimated to extort $15 per week from the city's 14,000 street vendors and kiosks in 2013, and contributed to the closure of an estimated 17,500 businesses in a year.
Extortion is also a major source of profit for gangs in Honduras' "Northern Triangle" neighbors -- Guatemala and El Salvador. In El Salvador, around 70 percent of small businesses have reported being extorted, and the activity earns gangs almost $1.5 million per month. Criminal groups also frequently target Guatemala's transportation sector and, as in Honduras, there are regular reports of transport workers being killed.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion
The crime has proved difficult for Northern Triangle governments to combat. A program that placed undercover officers on El Salvador's buses was halted last year due to a lack of funds. In Honduras, attempts to tackle bus extortion with patrols have shown few results.
New Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has pledged to be tough on crime, but the question remains of whether he will more successfully address this rampant problem than his predecessor.