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AP's Honduras correspondent navigates violent land

Sunday - 12/30/2012, 2:59pm  ET

By ALBERTO ARCE
Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) - Every Saturday morning, one of my taxi drivers pays about $12 for the right to park his cab near a hospital, about two blocks from a police station.

But it's not the government that's charging.

An unidentified man pulls up in a large SUV, usually brandishing an AK-47, and accepts an envelope of cash without saying a word. Jose and nine other drivers who pay the extortionists estimate that it amounts to more than $500 a year to park on public property. During Christmas, the cabbies dish out another $500 each in holiday "bonuses."

Meanwhile, Jose pays the city $30 a year for his taxi license.

"Who do you think is really in charge here?" Jose asked me.

It is an interesting question, one I have been trying to answer since I arrived here a year ago as a correspondent for The Associated Press. Is the government in charge? The drug traffickers? The gangs? This curious capital of 1.3 million people is a lawless place, but it does seem to have its own set of unwritten rules for living with the daily dangers.

Jose, who did not want his last name used for fear of reprisals, says his extortionists are from "18th Street," a powerful gang that started in U.S. prisons. The taxi drivers don't bother to report the crime, he says, because they suspect police are involved in the racket. In the first six months of 2012, 51 taxi drivers were killed in Tegucigalpa _ most of them, Jose's colleagues believe, for failing to pay extortionists.

When I moved to Tegucigalpa last March several friends back home in Spain wanted to know why. The big story was in Egypt, Libya and Syria; what was I planning to do on the other side of the globe? "Bear witness," I said, "to the most violent place in the world, to a country in crisis."

I am the only foreign correspondent here, with no press pack to consult on questions of security, or to rely on for safety in numbers. I fall back on instincts honed in war zones, but they are not always sufficient when you are covering a failing state.

When you are in the trenches of Libya, you generally know where the shooting comes from. But in Honduras, you never know where danger lurks.

Three weeks after I arrived, I attended a ceremony in the capital where U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield delivered 30 motorcycles to President Porfirio Lobo to help Honduras fight crime. A neighborhood leader, however, had complained to me that the narcos had bribed some police officers to look the other way. I asked the officials if they weren't afraid the motorcycles would end up in the hands of the bad guys.

I got no answer. Instead a Honduran reporter wrapped his arm around my shoulder and whispered, "We don't ask questions like that here." If I wanted to survive in Honduras, he said, "Keep a low profile."

More than two dozen Honduran journalists have been killed in the last two years. Some reporters carry weapons to protect themselves, others use the armed guards that President Lobo offered after a prominent Honduran radio journalist was assassinated last May _ reportedly in retaliation for a government crackdown on cartels.

It is not hard to become a fatality. A few months ago, I interviewed a lawyer, Antonio Trejo, who was defending the peasants of Aguan Valley in a land dispute against agribusiness tycoon Miguel Facusse, one of the most powerful men in the country. Trejo had warned repeatedly that he would be killed for helping the campesinos. Two days after I interviewed him, he was shot six times as he was leaving church by two men on a motorcycle.

In August, I took a walk on a Sunday with a couple of friends in a sad dilapidated park _ one of only two in the city. I got a call on my iPhone. I stepped away from friends and began to walk as I talked, as you would in a normal city, a normal park. Suddenly two teenagers approached me, asking first for a cigarette, then for the phone. I hung up, put the phone in my pocket and shouted over to my friends, who helped me chase the young men away _ once we realized they weren't armed.

But I learned my lesson. Unwritten rule: Do not walk around talking on an iPhone, which costs about three times a monthly salary in Honduras. And forget the park.

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