There are several taxi ranks all around the central square of Tegucigalpa, where there is the national monument, the baroque cathedral dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel. Most of them are white-coloured Toyota Corolla cars. “All taxis were produced in the last century and are still ‘proudly’ operating”, says, Manuel smiling.
He owns a ratty and not particularly clean taxi. Manuel is from the north, from a small village on the border with El Salvador. “I left my country more than 25 years ago”, he says. “I bought this taxi from a relative and ever since that day I’ve been driving up and down around the Tegucigalpa hills everyday”. Taxis, here usually pick up other clients while taking a possibly circuitous route to your destination. For this reason one never knows when they will arrive to their final destination. “Don’t be in a hurry”, Manuel says, “life is slow… like my taxi”.
There are more than 7500 taxis in Tegucigalpa, a city of one million and 270 thousand inhabitants. “ Besides, there are also 2.500 unofficial taxis and 180 more taxis, serving hotels”, calculates Manuel.
We continue our ride in his Toyola Corolla through the Morazan colony, through large and narrow roads, zigzagging between cars, buses and other taxis. As the last client gets out of the taxi, Manuel looks around. He seems to be worried. He explains: “The life of a taxi driver is tough here. Every month we have to give a $260 ‘tax’ to the person in charge of the ‘ Meeting Point Taxi ‘ and he, in turn, gives the money to the ‘Mara’, a gang that controls the area . It is called the ‘impuesto de guerra’ (war tax). If you do not pay, you are very likely to be killed. Over the past seven months 33 taxi drivers have been killed. I knew some of them personally. More than a hundred were beaten. Some passengers were also killed”. Manuel adds, “Just yesterday, a passenger asked me whether I had paid the ‘war tax’ or else he would not board. Basically the ‘Mara’ organization gets the most of our profit. The young taxi driver points out that he had to change his work area several times this year. The more profitable an area is, the higher is the ‘tax’ to pay.
As we pass by a market, Manuel explains: “In the city there are about 16 markets and the ‘Mara’ organization collects $15 a week from each vendor. The vendors are approximately 14,000. According to a local newspaper, Mara’s profit amounts to 9 million and 600,000 dollars coming from this racket alone.
“Gangs of boys, aged between 10 and 16 collect the extortion payments”, Manuel explains. “They come, don’t say a word, take the money and leave. As for taxis, gangs know the taxi number, they follow them, check their schedules and their rides and they even know where the drivers live”. Extortion is a major plague in Honduras. According to official estimates, gang members get more than $50 million a year from thousands of taxi drivers, construction workers, teachers, entrepreneurs and other professionals. In 2012, at least 17,000 small businesses shut down because they could no longer pay war taxes.
In recent months a new local street gang known as the Chirizos, whose members are underage, violent and determined, is fighting the Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 ‘Mara’ gangs for control over the extorting business in the Comayagüela district. A cop says to Southworld that there is strong evidence that Chirizos obey the orders of some elements among police and military forces, since they have weapons and the preparation that only military people have. This proves that some elements in the force are heavily involved in organized crime. Seven markets with more than 5,000 small shops are currently under their control. The profit is about $ 50,000 a week. Now they are targeting homeowners who are supposed to pay them a tax if they want to have no trouble. That is why many areas have gates blocking entrance roads and are controlled by armed vigilantes. Many families leave the Honduran capital after selling their home for little money: they can no longer live under constant threats.
Fighting between rival gangs has gone on for a long time. In the last three months of 2013, at least 80 young people aged under 23 were killed in Tegucigalpa alone. Honduras has become one of the most dangerous places in the world, with a murder rate at the highest ever: every year 86 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. “Extortion is just one symptom of Honduras’ woes”, Martin Villada, an expert on security issues, explains. “Endemic corruption throughout the security forces, widespread poverty, political divisions, lax laws, drug traffickers controlling whole regions of the country have made violence spread”. (C.C.)