Episode 589: Hello, I'm Calling From La Mafia : Planet Money On today's show: What it's like to live and work in the most dangerous country in the world.
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Episode 589: Hello, I'm Calling From La Mafia

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Episode 589: Hello, I'm Calling From La Mafia

Episode 589: Hello, I'm Calling From La Mafia

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JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST: Hello and welcome to Planet Money. I'm Jacob Goldstein.

MARLON BISHOP, BYLINE: And I'm Marlon Bishop. I'm a reporter at NPR's Latino USA.

GOLDSTEIN: Marlon, you are here today because you just brought us back a story from Honduras.

BISHOP: Yeah. And if people know one thing about Honduras, it's that it's the country with the world's highest murder rate. That means even jobs that seem dull and safe in most countries can become incredibly dangerous in Honduras. For example, driving a bus. So far this year, more than 40 bus drivers have been murdered in Tegucigalpa, the capital. I spent a lot of time with these bus drivers and also with the guys who own the buses. You see, in Honduras, the government doesn't run the city bus system. The buses are actually privately owned.

GOLDSTEIN: Basically, some guy says, I think a lot of people want to go from this neighborhood to that neighborhood. And then he goes and buys a bus. Often, it's an old, yellow school bus from the U.S.

BISHOP: I talked to this guy Luis who owns two buses in Tegucigalpa. And most of his business - it's pretty straightforward. He pays his drivers. They collect fares from the passengers. But there is this one other thing. Every once in a while, when the bus is stopped at an intersection, a kid will come up to the bus, knock on the window and hand the driver a cell phone.

LUIS: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: The voice on the other end of the line says hi, I'm calling from such and such gang, and if you want to keep driving this route, you have to pay us a certain amount of money every week.

GOLDSTEIN: And everyone in Honduras knows if you don't pay, very bad things will happen to you. Extorting buses and taxis has become a big business in Tegucigalpa. And for people who own buses, it's now shockingly routine. Paying gangs so they don't kill you is so common that people like Luis use this really ordinary word when they talk about extortion payments. They call it rent.

LUIS: Renta. (Speaking Spanish). Renta.

BISHOP: Rent. And it's not like you just pay rent to this one gang and they protect you from anything. In fact, they don't even protect you from the other gangs. Luis, which by the way is not his real name, says he's currently paying rent to five different gangs.

GOLDSTEIN: Today on the show, the story of street gangs and Honduras's booming extortion business. It's a portrait of what it's like to live and work in the most dangerous country in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN - FEAT. AKIE BERMISS")

DREAMS IN STATIC: (Singing) Girl, you're on your own. Say, you're on your own.

BISHOP: Those gangs that are extorting Luis, the guy who owns a few buses, are a huge problem in Honduras. And they're not kind of this abstract, faraway thing. Gangs in Honduras are part of everyday life - and not just for the bus company owners who have to pay the extortion. Part of the reason that Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world is because of these gangs.

GOLDSTEIN: And those gangs, it turns out, are actually an export from the U.S. They come from Los Angeles - Los Angeles, California. Back in the '90s, after the LA riots, U.S. officials started deporting members of Latino gangs from Southern California. And a lot of those gang members were from Honduras. So when they got home, when they got back to Honduras, they brought the gangs with them.

BISHOP: When I was in Honduras, I met a guy who joined one of these gangs just as it was getting started in the '90s. He got in on the ground floor of the extortion business, you could say. And he told me the entire story. I'm going to call him Francisco though that's not his real name. He had me meet him at this bakery and then led me up four flights of stairs in this empty building, I guess so he could talk where nobody would hear him. And then he stood up for our entire two-hour interview, even though I told him to sit down.

FRANCISCO: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: Francisco is in his mid-thirties. He left the gang a while ago. When I interviewed him, he had a neat haircut. He was wearing a polo shirt, slacks. The entire interview he's holding his young son in his arms. And about 20 years ago, he told me, he joined a gang called MS-13, or as they call it here...

FRANCISCO: (Speaking Spanish).

GOLDSTEIN: Now, gangs are kind of a new thing still in Honduras at that time. And Francisco says he and his gang member friends were like, we need to figure out how to make some money with this gang. So they do this really simple version of extortion. They stand on a street corner, and they say, hey, give me some money. They say it o people in the neighborhood - the people with food carts or little grocery stores. And because these guys have guns and really scary looking tattoos, people give them money.

BISHOP: He says the rationale behind extorting his neighbors was this - the streets, they're mine. So anyone who's using them - a guy walking down the street, a vendor - is using something that's mine. And naturally, they have to rent those streets from me. Francisco says he could stand on the corner between, say, 5 and 7 in the evening and make about 10 bucks - enough to buy some weed and a snack for afterwards.

FRANCISCO: (Speaking Spanish).

GOLDSTEIN: In the next few years, Francisco and the other guys in MS-13 start getting into more serious crimes. They start leaving their neighborhood, committing robberies, stealing cars, even kidnapping people and holding them for ransom.

BISHOP: Then the government starts to push back. They start throwing gang members in jail as fast as they can. So you have this gang, and they're used to bringing in lots of money by roaming around and committing these crimes. But now the government is making that harder. So the gang starts pulling back.

GOLDSTEIN: And then, Francisco says, somebody in a gang has this brilliant insight - you don't have to go around robbing and stealing. You can stay put, and the money will come to you. It will literally come rolling to your block on wheels. You can start extorting the bus companies.

BISHOP: So it's just like that thing where Francisco is standing on the corner telling people to give him money. But it's on a much bigger scale now. The crazy thing is if you talk to him, and you talk to him about this extortion business that he's starting, he talks about it just like he's a guy running a bank or something.

FRANCISCO: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: He says it was an easy mechanism for reducing risk and increasing profits.

GOLDSTEIN: The next step was figuring out pricing. Francisco says the gangs studied the number of buses that ran each route; that they figured out what the owners were taking home each day in profits. And then they used that information to calculate what they could skim off the top without, you know, putting the bus companies out of business. And then after that, they adjusted their fees by trial and error. And it worked. They were making good money, keeping a low profile.

FRANCISCO: (Speaking Spanish).

GOLDSTEIN: Francisco says MS-13 basically has a monopoly on the extortion market for six years. But, of course, if you're running a successful business for long enough, somebody else is going to start competing against you. In this case, it was the 18th Street gang - la dieciocho.

FRANCISCO: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: 18th Street - la dieciocho - are MS-13's archrivals, way back from the gang's original days in Los Angeles. Francisco says the 18th Street gang in Honduras originally made their money from contract assassinations. But they started noticing that MS-13 was doing a better job at keeping its members out of jail.

GOLDSTEIN: And basically, the 18th Street gang realized, we are totally wasting our time on contract assassination. Extortion is obviously a much better business.

BISHOP: So 18th Street decides to switch their business model from murder to extortion. And in the next few years, lots of other gangs get into the same business. It's like the hot, new thing in organized crime. You even start getting these freelance extorters - people who aren't affiliated with any gang at all. And they just go through the phone book, threatening random people in the hopes that they'll scare somebody into giving them money.

GOLDSTEIN: All these guys calling people, demanding money, threatening to kill, it could be total chaos. But one really striking thing in Honduras was that this certain kind of order emerged. If you look at the way things are there today with the gangs and the bus drivers and everybody, they're all playing by this set of rules. I mean, they're horrible, terrifying rules, but they are rules.

BISHOP: For example, one cabdriver I talked to told me he pays three gangs right now. Altogether, he pays them about a third of his income every week. Imagine that - imagine taking your paycheck and giving one-third of it, and all you get in return, all you bought with your money is not getting killed that week.

GOLDSTEIN: Luis, the bus driver we heard from at the top of the show, he is paying extortion to five gangs. He says one day of every week, every single bus fare he collects goes to the gangs. That day, he says he doesn't even get to keep a nickel. His drivers don't get anything. Nobody who works for his company gets anything on that day.

LUIS: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: On that day, Luis takes the fares his drivers collect, and he puts it in these envelopes that are labeled with the name of each gang, he says. And he sends a trusted worker to deliver them to one of the gang's couriers in some public place. It's as routine as paying the power bill, for example.

GOLDSTEIN: One key detail - he doesn't pay the same amount to each gang. In fact, he negotiates different rates with different gangs. So that crazy thing that happens where a gang calls you up and says give me this much money or I'll kill you - that is actually just the opening bid in a negotiation. The gang starts with a high number, Luis says there's no way I can possibly pay that. And then they go back and forth. And the gang eventually comes down to a lower number.

BISHOP: Now, if you're in a gang and you want to get a good rate on what you could call the extortion market, you have to be legitimately scary. You have to make good on your threats sometimes.

GOLDSTEIN: It's like this kind of gruesome advertising.

BISHOP: Yeah. And I visited a guy who experienced this firsthand. This guy I'll call Enrique. I went to his house in Tegucigalpa. He lived in this little cinderblock house up in the hills. And we sat at his kitchen table and he told me this story. For 28 years, Enrique drove a taxi. But it's not a taxi in the sense we mean in New York City. In Tegucigalpa, taxis are more like tiny buses. They drive regular routes and they pick up passengers along the way, cost 35 cents a ride. One day last year, Enrique says, he was driving his route when the gangs came for him.

GOLDSTEIN: And you'll hear a translation of his story here.

ENRIQUE: (Through translator) First, they tried to leave a cell phone with me. I didn't want to take it. But this girl gave it to me. And I put it to my ear and they said we're calling from La Mafia.

BISHOP: La Mafia - translation, the Mafia - is a relatively new gang in Tegucigalpa.

ENRIQUE: (Through translator) And I said, no, I don't have anything to talk to you about. And boom, I threw the phone back at the girl.

BISHOP: His thinking was I already pay extortion to all these gangs. If I don't give these guys a chance to talk to me, they can't extort me. Then, a week later...

ENRIQUE: (Through translator) It was like 1 in the afternoon. I was parking my car. And when I looked in the mirror to look behind me to see if there was another car coming, I saw this tough looking guy coming towards me. He puts the gun to my head. (Imitates gunshots).

BISHOP: The gun backfired twice.

ENRIQUE: (Through translator) I see myself out of the car and I ran after the guy. He slipped into the market and I didn't want to follow him after that.

BISHOP: The next day, Enrique couldn't bear to get back into his cab.

ENRIQUE: (Through translator) Yes, I stopped working. I stopped working for a while. Actually, I stopped working for life.

BISHOP: For a long time after the botched shooting, he didn't even leave the house. And even now, more than a year later, I could tell he's still on edge.

ENRIQUE: (Through translator) There's no law anymore. There's no respect for anybody. It's going to get to the point where it's like the Wild West. If you want somebody to respect your rights, you'll have to walk around with a gun in your hand.

BISHOP: Not everybody is as lucky as Enrique. Just one week after Enrique's near miss, one of his coworkers on the same route got gunned down.

GOLDSTEIN: And this happens all the time. This year alone, as we mentioned earlier in the show, more than 40 bus drivers in Tegucigalpa were killed. On top of that, since 2012, more than 200 taxi drivers have been killed.

BISHOP: And it's not just murders. When Los Chorizos, one of the newer gangs, got started, they decided they needed to stand out. So they started hijacking buses and setting them on fire - once or twice with a driver inside the bus. So nowadays when Los Chorizos are negotiating with bus drivers, they actually get a higher extortion fee than almost any other gang because people are just terrified of them.

GOLDSTEIN: The reason Los Chorizos and all those other gangs can get away with this - and this is probably obvious by now - is the rule of law has broken down in Honduras. It's a country where you can literally get away with murder.

BISHOP: When I was talking to the bus and the cabdrivers about all these negotiations and the phone calls and the extortion, I would ask them, well, why didn't you just call the police? And they would give me this look because calling the police in Honduras is not a good option. For one, they probably won't be able to help you in most cases, and some people told me they were scared to call the police because they thought the police would rat them out to the gangs.

GOLDSTEIN: And this basic failure of the justice system in Honduras, this is partly because Honduras is really poor. The country just can't afford to hire and train enough competent police officers, not to mention prosecutors and judges and everybody else you need to create a functioning justice system. The country can't pay its police enough to earn a decent living without taking bribes. This breakdown of the rule of law and all the extortion, it happened in part because Honduras was so poor. But it also means Honduras is likely to stay poor. It's this terrible cycle. And it's something that happens in many parts of the developing world where you have the failure of the rule of law and violence, and that hurts economic growth. It's part of the reason that it's hard for poor countries to get richer. Honduras is just an extreme case.

BISHOP: Yeah. I mean, think of Enrique, the taxi driver, he quit working because of extortion. And now, all of his energy is loss to the economy altogether. And you have an entire country of Enriques. That's because the extortion business isn't just the buses and taxis anymore, it's the women in the market selling clothes, it's the mechanics, it's everybody you can think of. There are reports of lawyers and politicians being extorted. And I even heard of at least one plastic surgeon being forced to pay up.

GOLDSTEIN: This is a huge reason not to open a business in Honduras, not to work, not to invest. I mean, why should I drive a cab or start a shop if it means somebody is going to start calling me on the phone and telling me that unless I paid them money, they will kill me?

GOLDSTEIN: The Hungarian government obviously knows extortion is a problem. And so they recently launched this special anti-extortion taskforce to try to deal with it. While I was in town, they actually made some arrests. They put together this press conference and I decided to go. A government PR lady stands up in front of the reporters and reads this long press release in that classic press release tone of voice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: There were these cops wearing ski masks, and they brought out a few people in handcuffs. And these were not what you would call gang kingpins by any stretch of the imagination. They looked like scared looking kids. There was a 15-year-old boy, there was a 19-year-old woman. They had been caught with a little bit of cash because they were gang couriers basically, you know, picking up envelopes from bus drivers and handing them to the gangs.

GOLDSTEIN: And Enrique, the former cabdriver who almost got shot, he says press conferences like this, they're on TV all the time these days.

ENRIQUE: (Through translator) Look, the police always say that they got this guy and they got that guy. No, no, to me, that's just a facade to give some hope to the people. No, no, that's impossible.

BISHOP: On my last day in Tegucigalpa, I went to the opening of a new bus station. It was part of a government push to make the buses safer. It had walls and there was an exit guarded by a man with a very large weapon. A few hundred members of the transport industry were there. And there were speeches, it was a polite audience. Luis, that guy who owns two buses, he was there. He said the new bus station, it's a nice idea. But he told me that by Monday, the gang members would be inside the gates.

LUIS: (Speaking Spanish).

GOLDSTEIN: And on the following Wednesday, just like every Wednesday, Luis said he would slip some bills into neatly marked envelopes and pay his rent.

(SOUNDBITE OF DREAMS IN STATIC'S SONG, "YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN - FEAT. AKIE BERMISS")

GOLDSTEIN: Thanks to NPR's Latino USA for lending Marlon Bishop to us to work with us on the story. Latino USA is a podcast that you can get wherever you get your podcasts. You can also visit them online at latinousa.org. I'll also mention that if you want more Honduras, you can get it from Latino USA next week when they will have a full hour, Marlon, on your recent trip to Honduras.

BISHOP: I have a few people I'd like to thank. Thanks to Round Earth Media, who funded my trip to Honduras. Special thanks also to my Honduran reporting partner German Andino and our trusty driver Alex Mourio (ph) without whom I could have never successfully reported this story. Thanks also to Laura Calcada, Conrad Fox, Beverly Abel, Mary Stucky, A.C. Valdez and all the folks at Radio Pogreso in Honduras, especially Iolany Perez.

GOLDSTEIN: Felix Solis did the voiceover for Enrique the cab driver. Our show today was produced by Thea Benin. One last thing, NPR Music is holding a contest. They're going to discover a new band, a new musician. If you want to enter, here's what you got to do - record an original song, post it to YouTube and submit the video at npr.org/tinydeskcontest by January 19, 2015. If you win, you get lots of great things.

BISHOP: I'm Marlon Bishop.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein.

BISHOP: Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN - FEAT. AKIE BERMISS")

DREAMS IN STATIC: (Singing) You've got a ticket to ride. But since you throw me out in the cold, you're on your own. Hey, you're on your own, baby. You're on your own. Yeah. See, you're on your own, baby. You're on your own.

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