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Extortion, and the violence connected to it, is one of the main drivers forcing Hondurans to leave their homes and even the country in search of safety. Victims and perpetrators alike are being forced to flee if they want out.

The first threat arrived via a “friend” who lived in the same neighborhood as José*, in the northern city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

“Look, this mara guy [member of the Barrio 18] says that if you don’t cooperate you’re going to have problems. They’ve noticed you’re earning good money,” José, aged 45, remembers his acquaintance saying in reference to the modest living he made buying, repairing and selling used cars.

José migrated to the city from western Santa Bárbara department to the south of San Pedro Sula in 2012 to escape poverty and find work.

“I was really poor, I had no means by which to live – so when I came here I struggled a lot to buy a small car,” he told us. Business went well, and he soon found he could repair and sell cars for a living.

But soon the Barrio 18 gang — which controlled the part of the neighbourhood where José lived — came knocking for a share of his earnings, or what is often called “the war tax” in Honduras. Extortion is now one of the primary sources of income for both the Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs in the three Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Victims range from public transport workers, taxi drivers and residents to large and small business owners and even sex workers.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion

José began by paying 2,000 lempiras (around $83) to the gang, but over the course of a year and a half that rose to 3,000 lempiras (around $125). A member of the gang collected the money every month, and the amount kept on rising.

“It eventually rose to 12,000 lempiras (just over $500) a month,” José said.

“’If you don’t pay it tomorrow at 9am,’ they told me one day, ‘we know where your children go to school, we know where you work, where you walk, where you live and your daily movements … we have where you walk every day very well-controlled, so if you want to live you’d better pay.’”

José says that he left the neighborhood with his family before dawn the next day, and returned to his former home in Santa Bárbara, abandoning his house in San Pedro Sula. He and his family took what they could fit in the car.

Forced to Flee

More than 1,400 Hondurans were internally displaced in 2017, fleeing death threats, violence, extortion and gang recruitment, according to the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos – CONADEH). This compares to 757 reported cases in 2016. But in reality, the true number of Hondurans displaced directly by extortion — which human rights defenders say is now almost ubiquitous — remains unknown.

The figure from CONADEH also doesn’t account for those Hondurans who fled the country to migrate to other nations such as Mexico and the United States due to extortion and related violence from the gangs.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

Yet it isn’t just victims who are forced to flee – participants in these extortion schemes who later want out are also effectively forced out of their homes if they wish to survive. Karla*, a 20-year-old mother living in San Pedro Sula, worked for some years collecting extortion payments and packaging up drugs for the Barrio 18 gang in the notorious Rivera Hernández neighborhood.

“I got to a point in my life when I wanted to enjoy the ‘crazy life’ as they call it: gang life. Well yes it’s risky, very, but at the same time it looked like fun,” she told us. She described how payment amounts and victims — shop owners, market stalls, houses — were listed in notebooks and that the “tax” was collected weekly, twice a month or once a month.

“They were big amounts,” Karla said. “Between 5,000 and 7,000 lempiras (around $208 and $290).”

She would collect the extortion money, often going out a number of times a day and always handing the proceeds over to the head of the clique, who would pay her a monthly wage of some 12,000 lempiras (around $500) for her work. Per week, she said she could collect up to as much as 500,000 lempiras (just under $30,000). She started working with the gang when she was nine years old, and collected extortion proceeds on and off during her time with them.

But now she’s out of that life, she says.

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile

“I made a mistake one day and they wanted to do me harm, and hurt my family as well, so I moved my family away and then myself,” she said. She refused to kill a gang rival – a prerequisite to move up the hierarchy – and her superiors didn’t take her rebellion well.

She said that she now works as a waitress in another part of the city but lives in fear of stumbling upon someone she knows.

“I don’t know if when I am working who I might bump into, who might know me and want to … who might see I was from that gang and want to kidnap me or do something else to me.”

Extortion and Displacement

Alexandre Formisano, who works for the International Red Cross in Tegucigalpa, said that extortion is present in nearly all cases of displacement, but that it isn’t always the root cause. There are no figures to show the proportion of displacements that are provoked by the extortion schemes levied by gangs, he said, but experiences such as those of José and Karla are common.

“People want to become invisible. They try to stop existing – to disappear – because they know that the gangs have the ability to find them in every corner of the country. And they know that if the gangs don’t find them they will find their children, and they fear for their kids’ lives … so for a lot of these people it is unthinkable that they would go to the authorities [to report a gang problem],” Formisano said.

“They would rather disappear and start a life in a new place.”

* Names have been changed to protect people’s safety.

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