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.
"If one of our own did something like that in our territory, we would create problems for that person," said the 30-year-old inmate, who has served 10 years so far for possession of drugs and arms. Gang leaders often run their operations from prison.
In the neighborhood, where some of the abandoned homes have become trash dumps, remaining residents ran away when an AP reporter tried to interview them.
"The law of silence rules," Dominguez said. "They know anyone can be a lookout ... We maintain a strong presence in the neighborhood, but we know over there, in front of the school, gang members continue to hide in those homes after they kick out the owners."
He said other neighborhoods are experiencing the same kind of flight, with gangs sometimes taking over houses, or even renting them out after owners leave.
"In some neighborhoods there is even a curfew imposed by the gangs," said Jose Corea, an inspector with the Honduran police's newly formed extortion unit.
Corea said the unit has received 506 complaints of extortion involving homes, taxis and businesses in Tegucigalpa in the first half of 2012. He can't compare it to previous years because the unit just started collecting numbers.
But a 2010 U.N. study showed that 30 percent of Hondurans interviewed had been victims of extortion, 26 percent more than once.
Deputy Commander Miguel Martinez Madrid of the National Police warned that home extortion is growing more sophisticated, and the victims are sometimes relatives of migrants living abroad.
"We know the gangs are identifying vulnerable people, for example, women who have children with their husbands in the U.S.," he said. "The minute they make an improvement to their home, they knock on the door and force them to sell the property for a 10th of its value. They even make some visits with a lawyer."
The problem extends beyond the poor outskirts.
Francisco Moncada lives in downtown Tegucigalpa in one of the grandest houses near the city's Central Park. He joins neighbors to chat or smoke a cigar outside his home and other nights he walks his dog. But in recent years he has started carrying a gun.
"I am scared of painting my house," he said. "The gang members would know I have money and would threaten me, like the business next door."
Duron and his girlfriend say there were a series of petty robberies at their former home that they believe were related to the subsequent extortion attempt. They now rent out the home through a real estate agency.
Unlike friends who have fled to Spain or the U.S., they don't plan to abandon their city, though.
"I'm not leaving because of the security" situation, said Ocampo, 28. "If I'm not willing to fight for change in my country, who will?"
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