Pay or Die

July 26, 2019

Below is an excerpt from KIND board member Sonia Nazario’s op-ed in The New York Times

A bus owner wearing a red knit hat waits for the call he’s gotten every Monday morning for 10 years. That’s when Honduras’s gangs began charging anything with wheels — buses, taxis, motorcycle taxis — a “war tax.” Just here in the capital, the owners of these businesses pay an estimated $23 million to gangs each year.

Nonpayment equals death.

Since 2010, more than 1,500 Hondurans working in transportation have been murdered — shot, strangled, cuffed to the steering wheel and burned alive while their buses are torched. If anyone on a bus route stops paying, gangs kill a driver — any driver — to send a message.

At 10:13, the bus owner’s phone rings with the 18th Street gang’s instructions: “Can you bring it early today?” We jump into a small black car. He agrees to let me come along, on the condition that I crouch down in the back seat, and that I never reveal his name.

We stop next to a hardware store, where a bus dispatcher arrives in a white Toyota pickup and hands over an inch-thick block of cash — 16,000 lempiras, about $650.

The gang calls again. “I’m coming,” the bus owner says. “I’m arriving in a black car.”

Armed lookouts watch as the car’s engine strains up the hill into Las Pavas, a stronghold of the 18th Street gang in the north of the city. Near the top, the bus owner stops at the same spot he has for a year, a green house with a peach-colored iron railing. We tense up. Unlike the MS-13 gang, which requires you to walk toward youths holding AK-47s to pay your “taxes,” 18th Street has drive-through service — unless gangsters sense something is amiss, and order you out of your car. I huddle down in the back seat, turn my phone to record video, press it against the car’s tinted window, and pray no one sees me.

Two youths materialize. The bus owner rolls the window down two inches, and shoves through the cash.

Read the full article in The New York Times