Hello, I'm Calling From 'La Mafia' : Planet Money Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. That means jobs that in the U.S. are relatively safe and boring, like driving a bus, can be incredibly dangerous. It all starts with a phone call.
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Hello, I'm Calling From 'La Mafia'

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Hello, I'm Calling From 'La Mafia'

Hello, I'm Calling From 'La Mafia'

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We go now to Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world. That means jobs that are relatively safe here in the U.S., like driving a bus, can be incredibly dangerous in Honduras. More than 40 bus drivers were killed this year in the capital city, Tegucigalpa. As Marlon Bishop of NPR's Latino USA reports, it's all due to a terrifying business that thrives in Central America.

MARLON BISHOP, BYLINE: If you're a bus driver in Honduras, there's this thing that happens all the time. You'll be at an intersection and a kid will come, knock on your window and hand you a cell phone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: The owner of a bus company explained it to me, but we won't be using his name because of who is on the other end of that cell phone call. The voice on the phone will say hi, I'm calling from such-and-such a gang, and if you want to keep driving this route, you have to pay me money every week or else we will kill you.

And it's not just like you pay this one gang and they protect you from the other gangs or anything like that. This bus owner is currently paying off five different gangs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: This kind of extortion has become a big business in Honduras - an entire sector of the economy, you could say. And to use your name when talking about this sector could get you killed. I met with an ex-gang member who told me how it all got started. He was a member of MS-13, or as it's known in Spanish...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: MS-13 was one of the first gangs to take off in Honduras in the '90s. He says back then the gang would make money doing your typical gang stuff. They would go out and rob, steal cars, etc. Then somebody in the gang has this brilliant idea.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: Instead of going out and risking arrest, they could stay in their own neighborhoods and wait for the money to come rolling to their doorsteps on wheels. They could extort the bus companies.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: And this worked really well. The gang member I talked to says MS-13 had a monopoly on the extortion market for six years. But if you're running a successful business, eventually somebody else is going to start competing against you. And that's how we get to today, where a bus owner is paying five different gangs. Basically, all the fares collected on one day of the week go directly to extortion. The money gets collected, put into neatly marked envelopes and sent off to various gangs. It's as routine as paying the power bill. In fact, they call it the rent.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: Gangs want to make as much money as they can without putting the drivers out of business. But in order to ensure people will pay them, they have to follow through on their threats sometimes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

BISHOP: I met a guy who experienced this firsthand, a cab driver. One day about a year ago, he was out driving his cab when they came for him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (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: Then a week goes by. He's parking his cab, and he looks into the mirror and sees a tough-looking guy coming at him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through translator) He puts a gun to my head.

BISHOP: The gun misfired, twice, and the kid who tried to kill him ran away. The next day, this man who used to drive every day couldn't bear to get into his cab.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through translator) Yes, I stopped working. I stopped working for a while. Actually, I stopped working for life.

BISHOP: This is a part of why extortion is so bad for Honduras - because on top of the terrible human toll, it's a major drag on the already weak economy. It just doesn't make a lot of sense to start a business or invest if the end result is you're going to be extorted and possibly killed.

Over 200 taxi drivers have been murdered in the last two years. The government knows that extortion is a big problem and recently launched this special anti-extortion police force to deal with it. They arrested some people while I was there, and I went to check out the press conference.

Police officers wearing face masks bring out three handcuffed extorters, and they are hardly fearsome gang kingpins. There's a 15-year-old boy, a 19-year-old woman. They were basically low-level couriers for the gangs. The taxi driver I talked to, the one staying at home, says he sees press conferences like these on TV all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (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. But no, that's impossible.

BISHOP: Extorting buses and taxis has been so lucrative that recently the gangs have expanded into new areas. These days, everyone from the woman selling clothes in the market to the lawyers have to pay up. For NPR News, I'm Marlon Bishop.

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