Death of a Honduran Taxi Driver

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) - Benjamin Alvarez Moncada pulled his cab to the front of the taxi stand behind Los Dolores church and half a block from the capital's main police station. He was the first in line, so he was the one to die, the other drivers said.

It's as simple as that.

"Don Mincho," as the 68-year-old was called, expected a passenger to emerge from the throngs headed home after work on Tuesday afternoon. Instead, a 15-year-old sidled up to his taxi with a revolver and fired three shots, hitting him in the chest, ear and neck. Then, the boy in a green shirt and baggy pants ambled away as casually as he had arrived.

Simple as that.

In a lawless country with the world's highest per capita homicide rates, most murders become little more than a statistic and most crimes go unsolved. This one might have remained a mystery, too, if witnesses hadn't taken justice into their own hands, and taxi drivers gathered around a friend's casket hadn't agreed to tell their tale of weekly extortion.

Murder, it turns out, is not a simple story.

"It sounded like Christmas firecrackers," said Carlos Irias, 32, an engineer who had been waiting at the cab stand. "But then I saw the boy with the pistol in his hand firing at the taxi driver."

When the shooting stopped, a crowd gathered around the bleeding body of Don Mincho, slumped over the wheel of taxi (hash)322. A driver began to shout and took off after the shooter, quickly joined by other bystanders and a policeman. As the boy broke into a run, an onlooker stuck out his leg and tripped him a block from the taxi stand, a witness recounted. The officer grabbed him and returned him to the scene.

There are unwritten rules for survival in a land riven by drug trafficking and street gangs. Those who can afford to live behind gates and high walls. They stay at home after dark. Witnesses to murder know to keep quiet, and normally they do. But not this time.

Perhaps it was the chilling calm of the young hired gun, or perhaps it was the sum of 1,178 homicides last year and 616 the first half of this year in a city of just over a million residents that drove them to it. Suddenly the crowd grew enraged. Candidates running for president in an election on Sunday have been promising to control violence in this failing state, but dozens of citizens decided they had had enough.

"A big group of people piled on top of the boy and began to beat him with their hands and sticks ... The policeman couldn't protect him," Irias said.

Horrified by the barbarity at first, Irias soon joined the screaming from the sidelines: "We have to kill these boys."

And they would have, Irias said, if a pickup truck full of police hadn't arrived to load the boy into the back, his face and body already mangled from the blows. As the truck pulled away, taxi drivers shouted after him, "We know what you look like, bastard. When you get out we're going to kill you."

Yellow police tape went up around the crime scene. Angry drivers demanded silence at the site of the killing, then took their taxis to block traffic throughout the city of narrow winding roads, as though chaos could quiet the feelings of impotence.

Thirty-three taxi drivers were among those murdered last year -- one every 11 days.

"We can't take it anymore," one of the drivers said through tears. "It could have been me."

Hours after the shooting, outside the New Dawn church where their friend's casket lay open to visitors, the taxi collective appointed one of its members to tell the back story of Don Mincho's violent death, and the fear all the drivers feel, on the condition that he not be identified. "They break the one who is brave enough to speak," a member of the collective said.

The extortion began six years ago. Each week, the collective hands an envelope with 5,500 lempiras -- about $260 -- to a boy who collects it on behalf of a criminal ring that they believe to be the 18th Street gang, originally from the United States. That's about 150 lempiras per driver, who is lucky to make 500 lempiras on a good day.

"Two weeks ago, we got a call asking us for 20,000 lempiras (about $1,000)," the driver explained.

The drivers didn't pay. They said they didn't have any more to give. They had children to feed, families to support. They were desperate. So for the first time, they filed a police complaint.

"I wore a mask when I made the declaration so that no one would identify me," the driver said.

The police complaint, he believes, is the reason Don Mincho was killed. They had been warned.

"Last Thursday this same boy came to the taxi stand and pointed a pistol at the chest of another colleague. He pointed, but he didn't shoot. The guy has been shut up in his house ever since. He's turned off his phone and doesn't want to talk to anyone," he said.

But there's no hiding. The drivers belong to a collective that parks at the same taxi stand. Their routine makes them vulnerable to the gangs, who use children to study their taxi numbers, clock their schedules and the frequency of their trips. "They know where we live. We are trapped."

They could pick off any of the drivers, any time.

"They killed Don Mincho because he was first in line. It was nothing against him. They attacked the collective, not the person. And if we go back tomorrow, they'll kill another one of us."

Leaving the collective or changing jobs isn't an option, the drivers say. They've been taxi drivers for decades and, besides, there is no work in Honduras, where two out of three people live in poverty on less than $1.25 a day.

At the Santa Cruz cemetery on Wednesday, dozens of taxis pulled in along with three buses full of Don Mincho's friends, neighbors whom he had driven to school or work or taken to do errands for the last 35 years. The driver left behind a widow and three daughters as well as several grandchildren. One of them is also a taxi driver in the same station.

The mourners prayed and bade farewell to their friend in an open casket, kissing him goodbye before returning to an uncertain future.

Police confirmed the boy's age to taxi drivers outside the station, but would say no more. On Thursday, the Los Dolores-El Bosque taxi stand stood empty. And one driver said he saw only two possible solutions to their predicament: "Pay the war tax (to the gangs) or emigrate to the United States." More likely, the drivers would find a way to pay the extortionists the 20,000 lempiras they'd demanded before Don Mincho was killed.

Until they pay, returning to work would be suicide.

"I don't want to think that there isn't a solution to this, but nobody knows what it is," said the passenger Irias, who also attended the funeral. "Whoever wins this election has to take this on. It's more than a society can take."

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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