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Gangs extort cash from Honduran homeowners

Wednesday - 8/8/2012, 10:32pm  ET

By ALBERTO ARCE
Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) - Alejandro Duron's life changed in minutes when the envelope appeared under his front door.

The note inside demanded that the 34-year-old systems analyst pay $2,500 for the privilege of remaining in the house in a high-end neighborhood. It detailed Duron's daily routine so he would know the threat was serious. "If you don't pay, we will kill you," the message warned.

He and his girlfriend, Helen Ocampo, who had grown up in the home, fled immediately.

"We went to sleep in another place and asked the neighbor to feed the dog," Duron said.

Extortion of homeowners is a chilling new crime trend in Honduras, already among the world's most dangerous countries. By demanding people pay to stay in their own homes, gang members have emptied some neighborhoods and have changed the way many live. While authorities have no numbers about how widespread the crime has become, a survey by The Associated Press of police in a dozen neighborhoods indicates at least hundreds of families have been affected.

The police, the prosecutor's office and the U.N. agencies working in Honduras say that the problem is increasing even if numbers are hard to come by because many victims, like Duron, fear reporting the crime in the violence-wracked country.

"The number of extortions is much higher than reported," said Rafael Espinosa, who heads the security program for the U.N. delegation in Honduras. "People do not dare to report because there are few stations, few agents, and because they don't trust the authorities."

The problem has become so widespread that the National Police have set up special units in areas where entire blocks have been abandoned, trying to halt a crime that first appeared four years ago and is growing rapidly.

The gangs have their roots in the prisons of Southern California, where some refugees of the region's civil wars sowed violence in the 1980s. Increased U.S. deportations of criminals in the 1990s sent many of those gang members back home to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where they practiced their brutality in countries with weak police and criminal justice systems.

Terrorized by street gangs and members of Mexican drug cartels, this Central American capital of about 1.2 million people recorded 1,149 murders last year _ more than 87 for every 100,000 residents. Honduras has the world's worst homicide rate, according to U.N. figures.

That creates fear that backs up threats of extortion of many sorts, which has become one the gangs' biggest businesses.

Gang extortion is common throughout Central America and it also has devastated Mexican cities such as Ciudad Juarez on the U.S. border, where blocks upon blocks of businesses were shuttered or torched during the peak of a crime wave there in 2010. In Guatemala, bus drivers have been targeted by assassins on motorbikes after refusing to pay gangs to let them operate.

In Honduras, taxi drivers and business owners are also used to extortion. But the practice now has reached into the one place many people considered their last remaining safe haven: their home.

"Here, a gang is charging a tax just to live," said deputy police chief Brian Dominguez, who heads a recently formed unit to fight home extortion.

Among the hot spots is a rough Tegucigalpa neighborhood, a maze of dirt roads and dangerous stairways on the side of a ravine where the houses seem to be always under construction, with empty window frames awaiting panes of glass.

Last week, 82-year-old Oscon Armando Ochoa was shot seven times at close range inside his home because he couldn't pay an extortion fee, which Dominguez said is about $15 a week. Ochoa, who sold sodas and snacks to make ends meet, was found amid a pile of cans and bags of potato chips.

"They've taken him, they've taken him. This is an injustice. We are poor and they have taken him for not paying," his relatives told police officer Jose Maldonado, who was at the crime scene.

Dominguez's task force set up shop in April, just a few hundred yards from where Ochoa died, aiming to evict gang members who had taken over an entire block of homes. Even after the outlaws were evicted, the owners didn't return. Police now use one house as a command headquarters, where officers camp out on a dozen mattresses on the floor. The number "18" is still marked on a wall, the sign of the gang that police say terrorizes the neighborhood.

The AP attempted to reach gang leaders for comment. On Wednesday, a leader of the Barrio 18 gang, speaking from a prison outside Tegucigalpa, said the number on the wall marks the gang's territory, but claims that the gang protects those in the neighborhood and it does not extort them. The extortionists are either drug addicts or police, said the leader, who would only speak on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by authorities.

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