Tegucigalpa (AFP) - Honduran authorities looking for new ways to combat gangs terrorizing the country are waging an operation called "Avalanche" to seize bank accounts, properties and even a small hospital from wealthy crime bosses.
Already 137 accounts, a dozen houses, 188 vehicles and the hospital in the northern city of San Pedro Sula have been confiscated from suspected chiefs of the feared Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS-13, according to the head of the police investigation division, Ricardo Castro.
The total value of the assets seized so far is $9 million, with most or all of it believed to have come from the extortion of owners of shops and public transport companies, he said.
The police operation, which began February 23, is continuing with no defined end date.
Twelve gang leaders and associates have been arrested to date in the swoops, including the mayor of the town of Talanga, east of the capital Tegucigalpa, and a former police officer.
The effort to scoop up the ill-gotten gains runs in parallel with an armed crackdown by police and soldiers to curb gang activities.
Those confrontations have netted more young members from the rival 18 gang than ones from MS-13.
"We felt that MS-13 was not being adequately addressed and so we adopted a different strategy, attacking its economic resources," a prosecutor, Oscar Chinchilla, explained.
A criminologist, Arabeska Sanchez, told AFP that "the government has finally found a formula to control crime and dismantle the gangs' structures."
He added: "For the first time, we know where the money from the extortions has gone, and this looks like a successful operation."
The manager of a transport company, Jorge Lanza, welcomed the new tack taken by the police.
"Whatever method that can end this sad situation (of extortion) is welcome," he said.
"This operation 'Avalanche' should be made permanent, not just for a week or two," he added, explaining that police and military protection on public transport was only occasional.
Lanza said more than 80 people died last year in assaults on buses by gang members angry that owners of the companies refused to pay their "war tax" of $45 per bus per week. Up to five different gangs, including MS-13 and 18, were behind the extortions.
According to Honduras' national anti-extortion taskforce, last year 669 youths demanding the "war tax" were arrested. More than 4,000 people were victims of extortion.