“Corruption,” my taxi driver grumbles when he sees a child on the street corner collecting money, supposedly for a hospital.
“Corruption,” he says, shaking his head, when we pass a bridge that has been under construction since I arrived four months ago.
When we pass the pick-up trucks loaded with military police, straight-faced and armed to the teeth, he begins waving his hands back and forth: “These police are making minimum wage, and they’re driving nice cars and living in nice houses. Where do you think that money comes from?”
He is one of my favorite taxi drivers, loquacious and opinionated, and I am an eager audience. I am naively curious about the “real world” here, wanting to test the facts and statistics I’ve read in reports and news articles from behind a tidy desk.
This week I’ve been reading about the gangs that control segments of Honduras like a patchwork quilt, vying for territory, charging small business and transportation “Impuestos de Guerra,” or “War Taxes” for the right to work unmolested.
I ask him suddenly if he’s ever been asked to pay.
He hesitates. “Nine hundred lempiras,” he says. It’s a little over $40. “What’s today, Friday? So it was yesterday at about two o’clock that they came to pick it up. Three hundred each for three of the gangs.”
Nine hundred lempiras is about three days of minimum wage here, but he is self-employed, and there are surely weeks where this is more than half of what he takes in.
“Think of it,” he says, “I work hard, 5am-9am every day, every day of the week to care for my family. Then I’m giving all that to someone who did nothing.”
He’s thoughtful now, and cars pass in front of him in the chaotic ballet of Tegus traffic. The roads are pitted and swerving and impossibly steep. Tegucigalpa feels sometimes less like a city than a conglomeration of smaller villages merging into and over each other, dusty and cracked and colorful, and the streets twist and swerve like they were added as an afterthought.
I used to wonder why someone like my taxi driver would so readily pay whatever the gangs asked. I would file a police report, I thought, get a coalition together, fight back. But it’s not that easy here.
“Did you hear I lost a son?” he says suddenly, turning so quickly down a side street that I bump against the door.
I hadn’t heard.
“All I wanted to do was take care of my family,” he began, and the story tumbled out. “I bought my sons taxis. I taught them what I knew. I always wanted to set a good example for them.”
“One day my son came to me and said, ‘They’re asking for 300 lempiras (about $14) but I don’t have it.’ I didn’t have it either. So I told him to come and hide at my house for a few days, not to drive his route. But before I saw him again, he… he disappeared.”
A woman on the side of the road, baby hanging on her hip, peddles bright pink and purple cotton candy off a high, white stick. She waves her wares back and forth, looking bored.
“We found his taxi empty by the mountain,” he continues, “I went up into the mountain to look for him. Five, six days. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. On the sixth day, well…”
“I’m sorry,” he says suddenly, and wipes his wet cheeks on his sleeve. Cars honk behind us and the car shudders forward again.
“That was four years ago and I still feel it like it was yesterday. He was only 30. My wife and I gave our whole lives to teach him, to show him good ways.” His voice chokes.
“He never did anything. He had good friends. And I don’t want anyone to die, we’re all human beings, but if someone had to die, why couldn’t it have been–?” he stops.
“They took him up to the mountain…” Our taxi rumbles over potholes and he breathes.
I’ve read about gang activity in Honduras and passed by graffiti claiming allegiance. But I live on a different level, safe and protected, blissfully unaware of the checkerboard that divides my neighbors into warring territories of violent rival gangs.
There were two gang-related shoot-outs last month, one just a few miles away in a place called “El Infiernito,” or “The Little Hell”. I read about the massacres and sighed sadly, but I didn’t know anyone who was killed. I’ve never lost a friend or family to violence. It’s a pain I know intellectually, but not emotionally, not physically.
“I was in bad shape after I came back down,” he continued. “I had to be in the hospital for a week. I had an IV in my arm here,” he pinches his right arm.
“My other son never drove his taxi again. He left for the United States. He says he’s not afraid there. But I don’t get to talk to him very much anymore. His younger brother sold his taxi too – but what could I do? I’m 59 years old. No one will hire me anywhere. They only hire young people, but I ask you – do young people have this kind of responsibility? That I wake up at 4am and work until 9pm – do you know of any young people who would do that?”
He wipes his eyes on his shoulder again. “We’re setting an example for the children. They see us go out to work. I never smoke, never drink, my wife sells food and I drive and we’re proud of what we do. It’s enough to pay electricity, water.”
“I don’t blame God,” he says suddenly, and we drive in silence for a few minutes, wheeling through turns in which he leans on his horn in the sharp insistent way that here means, “I’m coming through whatever the light says”.
After a few minutes of silence we arrive at my destination, I pay him quickly, gather up my things, and turn.
“God bless you,” I say, “God be with you.” It seems so weak and hollow after everything that’s been said.
“You too,” he says, “And call me when you’re ready to go home. I’m always available, any hour just give me a call.”
I’ll call him again and we’ll talk about it again, spinning down Tegucigalpa’s steep streets. It’s all he can do to keep his son’s memory alive – to tell his story to anyone who will listen. It’s all I can do right now – to listen.