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Promoting Justice in a Culture of Extortion

“Be serious hombre. You gotta catch up on your payments.” That message ticked in on Carlos´ phone while I interviewed him last year. We were sitting in a parked car with the A/C on max yet sweat was pouring through his t-shirt. Carlos was a victim of extortion, a terrible crime that affects over 200 thousand households in Honduras every year. Extortionists, traditionally gangs, charge regular payments from small businesses, vendors, taxi and bus owners and threaten with or commit acts of violence if they don’t pay up. Due to extortion, transportation sector personnel (buses, taxis and heavy cargo) have become a vulnerable group with 1,781 of them assassinated from 2010 to 2019 in Honduras. 

A year prior Carlos started receiving text messages from an unknown phone number saying he owed money. “They told me the name of the soccer club where my daughter plays and their schedule, and that they did not want anything to happen to her,” Carlos told me with a tremble in his voice. He was planning to close his business and flee to the US the next day to claim asylum, as he had no faith in the local justice system to protect him.  

Our first response was to do research; we read all the literature on the subject we could encounter

Injustices such as this could paralyze even the bravest of Christians, despite our clear biblical commission to stand up for the vulnerable. Yet, the work of the Association for a more Just Society (ASJ) in Honduras that I am a part of provides an example of what can be done when we choose to act in spite of our fears. 

ASJ had long been deeply concerned with how widespread extortion had become and the almost complete impunity for those involved. Our first response was to do research; we read all the literature on the subject we could encounter, interviewed 47 people including victims, police, judges and we even went inside a maximum-security prison to talk to gang-members convicted for extortion. We analyzed 149 legal cases and conducted a national survey, all to understand this awful crime of extortion and comprehend what the authorities were doing about it. 

We found out extortion was an even bigger problem than we thought. We estimate that 206,623 Honduran families (9 percent of the population) were paying 737 million dollars to extortionists in 2020. We also discovered that extortion was mutating. Rather than just demanding payments, extortionists would force bus-drivers to wash their buses in gang-owned car washes or buy food from their restaurants, to masquerade the criminal act and launder the proceeds. Rather than the traditional cash payments, extortionists would demand bank transfers or payments through local phone apps. We also found that the government response was utterly insufficient as only a few hundred cases were brought to trial each year, and only for cash-based extortion. 

We launched our report, and it immediately went viral

We knew we had to make this public and advocate for change and we knew the authorities would not like it. We chose to make a private event first, on November 15, 2022. We tried to pull together all relevant parties: bus owners, businesspeople, police, prosecutors, judges, the United Nations, the US Embassy, and pastors working in vulnerable communities. We wanted to express our concern, show our findings, and identify solutions together. And it seemed to work. They all showed up and the anti-extortion police unit did heavy note taking and thanked us for a great presentation. We left that event hopeful that authorities would improve and that we could work together to reduce this dreadful crime. 

A week later, on November 22, we went public. It seems like the circumstances created a perfect storm for our report to have a large impact. The Honduran Business Council released a public statement that extortion had “gotten out of hand” and the transportation sector decided to make a manifestation on the day of our report launch in which they jammed traffic all around the capitol by blocking streets with their vehicles. We launched our report, and it immediately went viral: the news programs made it the top story and the next day our report was on the covers of all major newspapers. We were invited to the most watched tv-debate program in Honduras and were given 90 minutes to present our findings and recommendations. 

The government pushed back heavily. The police director said we were lying - that we were exaggerating the scope of the problem. Yet two days later, the highest levels of government responded. The president Xiomara Castro called for a press conference to launch the new national anti-extortion strategy. And when we saw a copy, we got excited: it seemed to implement almost identically the things we had recommended and presented to the police. Some phrases even seemed to be copy-pasted from our report. 

We are right now researching and preparing to launch a report on December 6, 2023, which marks 1 year since the adoption of the president’s anti-extortion plan and the state of emergency. 

But the plan did not get to stand on its own. The president also declared “war on extortion” and announced a state of emergency which would give police access to raid houses and make arrests without a warrant and limit several other constitutional rights. During the following months, we followed the situation closely. We were troubled by the restriction of rights and what seemed to be very poor implementation of the plan. After 6 months, we launched a report that demonstrated the poor results. Only 86 cases of extortion had been brought to trial and at least 27 more bus and taxi owners had been killed. The police were not following the plan they had announced six months before. They were lost. 

The report made it around the world with citations in newspapers from Spain, Japan and in the New York Times. Congress called the police director to a hearing to be held accountable. However, in the following four months, the situation did not seem to be improving. Honduras has been engulfed by a series of events that have removed focus from the declared “war against extortion.” Yet, Hondurans remain under a state of emergency while victims of extortion are unprotected. We are right now researching and preparing to launch a report on December 6, 2023, which marks 1 year since the adoption of the president’s anti-extortion plan and the state of emergency. 

Investigating organized crime, interviewing gang-members and telling the police that their strategy isn’t working can be daunting. We might be unsure about what to say and how to say it. I come to think of Moses who was ordered by God to stand before the Pharaoh and tell him to let the Israelite people go. He insisted he wasn’t good with words and pleaded for God to send someone else. What if they won’t believe me or say I am lying? Moses asked in Exodus 4:1.

God’s plan was accomplished, but Moses must have doubted a lot along the way. 

Once he did go before the Pharaoh, accompanied by his brother Aaron, a back-and-forth over the freedom of Israel commenced. As Moses advocated their freedom, the pharaoh tightened his grip and treated them even less humane, and Moses doubted if he was helping or making the situation worse. (Exodus 5.22) In between the plagues, the Pharaoh would switch between promising to let the people go and changing his mind, hardening his stubborn heart. In the end, God’s plan was accomplished, but Moses must have doubted a lot along the way. 

I take away a few lessons from ASJ’s fight against extortion and Moses’ fight for freedom for his people:

First, we will often face pushback for saying the truth. Pharaohs, police directors and presidents may accuse us of lying. That shouldn’t hold us from speaking the truth and promoting justice.   

Second, oftentimes authorities will not do what we want them to do. ASJ wanted a great plan against extortion but certainly did not want to suspend constitutional rights and put vulnerable teens in risk of arbitrary detention. Moses certainly didn’t want pharaoh to tighten his grip further on the Israelite slaves. We may sometimes fear that rather than helping, we are making the situation worse. 

Third, sometimes authorities do not do what they themselves say they will do. The Honduran president launched a good plan against extortion but then completely abandoned it in the following months. Pharaoh promised several times to free the slaves but doubled down every time. 

In the end, we must focus on doing our part: identifying the needs of the vulnerable, working diligently to seek justice and speak the truth before the people with the power to make change. What they chose to do with the truth is largely out of our hands. All we can do is pray for God to soften their hearts and bring justice. At ASJ we will continue to research and bravely speak up but also pray and fight for a more just Honduras. We hope you will join us. 


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