The next time you need to get somewhere in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, you may want to think about walking instead of hailing a cab. In the past two years alone, 153 taxi drivers and 32 passengers have been murdered, and many more have been robbed and beaten.
Gangs in Honduras's biggest cities have left cab drivers with an ultimatum: pay the gangs a so-called "war tax" of $15 to $30 a day — a large portion of what they might earn every day — or run the risk of getting robbed, beaten, or killed.
The Honduran Security Ministry found that gangs regularly extort the drivers of more than 15,000 taxis and buses in the capital of Tegucigalpa and in San Pedro Sula; that money adds up to more than $27 million in annual revenue for the gangs. In Tegucigalpa, gangs extort more than $1.2 million a month from drivers.
Honduras's National Human Rights Commission (CONADEH) reported that as a result of nonpayment, 153 taxi drivers and 32 passengers have been murdered in the past two years. And in the past four years, 280 transportation employees were killed for not paying.
In Tegucigalpa, a 68-year-old driver was shot and killed by a member of the Barrio 18 gang because he couldn't come up with the $1,000 extortion fee that he owed. Why didn't the driver go to the police? He did — CONADEH also reported that police may often be in on the extortion schemes.
A dispatcher at Honduras City Tours Taxi, who refused to give his name because he feared gang retaliation, told VICE News that he agrees police are not only fully aware of the extortion, but also involved in it. Whether they're receiving kickbacks from the gangs or not, police aren't doing anything about the extortion or the violence. And neither is the government.
"It's really dangerous to be a taxi driver in this country," the dispatcher said. "If we don't pay the weekly tax, we will be targeted by the gangs."
Honduras City Tours is a private taxi company that regularly pays extortion fees to gangs. The dispatcher said his brother works for a public taxi company that's unable to pay. Last week, the brother was mugged at gunpoint by two men who at first appeared to be normal customers. We asked the dispatcher if he'd be willing to put us in touch with the brother, but the gang members had stolen his phone.
In January, a new government was elected in Honduras, and one of their mandates from voters was to combat extortion. In February, transportation workers in Tegucigalpa went on strike and demanded that the government do something. The Security Ministry responded by telling the workers to continue paying the fees until a solution is found. Nobody in Honduras expects that to happen anytime soon
Additional reporting by Leonardo Chiquillo