extortion in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras

ARCHIVE - For years, graffiti has been one of the ways in which gangs mark territory in the neighborhoods they inhabit.

SAN SALVADOR – The Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs have made homicide their form of submission in some Central American countries: through the commitment not to murder small and medium-sized business merchants, these groups have demanded for years a monetary quota known as the “fear tax” or the “terror tax”.

Although there is no official data on the money that the gangs receive through extortion, the study ‘War tax: the phenomenon of extortion and the state response in Honduras’published by the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ) based in Honduras, estimates that every year that country pays around 737 million dollars in extortion.

In El Salvador, the figure has reached 756 million dollars, according to the estimate of the Central Reserve Bank of that country a few years ago. While in Guatemala, the organization Global Financial Integrity (GFI), based in Washington, reveals that extortion reaches up to 57 million dollars each year.

The voice of america interviewed Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson, anthropologist and one of the authors of the ASJ study, who explained that in Honduras not only the gang extorts, but also other groups that pose as gang members to spread fear.

D’Aubuisson is of the idea that the Mara Salvatrucha, in Honduras, evolved into a “thousand-headed monster” and its extortive power is not concentrated solely in businesses, but also subsists on investments in legal and illegal businesses and also from the drug trafficking

Since the beginning of December, Honduras maintains an exception regime in neighborhoods of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sulaas a result of the increase in extortion of bus drivers and others, according to Xiomara Castro, president of that country, who in a press conference declared a “national emergency” for the events.

ARCHIVE – For years, graffiti has been one of the ways in which gangs mark territory in the neighborhoods they inhabit.

Coercing truckers into giving them money in exchange for respect for their lives was one of the first methods used by gangs in El Salvador to collect extortion, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC). ).

“At the beginning, the gangs in El Salvador were financed by various means, from the request for ‘voluntary collaborations’ between the inhabitants of the neighborhoods to the assault; but, when the structures began to grow, they needed more stable sources of income and then the idea of ​​practicing widespread and constant extortion arose”, explains GI-TOC in a study published at the end of 2021.

Honduras and El Salvador have a mixed transport system in which, although the bus lines are owned by the State, the units are owned by businessmen. Therefore, being extorted by gangs was relatively easy, according to GI-TOC, since the gang members did not need to leave their neighborhoods to collect the extortion, thus reducing the risk of being captured.

Today, the gang in El Salvador subsists almost entirely from extortion and this not only applies to bus driversbut also to neighborhood stores, to medium-sized businessmen and even to large companies that must enter those same neighborhoods to distribute their products, explained Douglas Farah to the voice of america.

The researcher explained that the mechanics of extortion in both countries is different, because unlike Guatemala and Honduras, drug trafficking in El Salvador is not well established, as it is in neighboring countries, so the main way to obtain money of gangs in El Salvador is through blackmailing businesses of all types and sizes.

Although El Salvador has been maintained since March of this year under an exception regime that has achieved a reduction in homicides, extortion continues to be a topic rarely discussed publicly.

According to the local newspaper The printing press, extortion complaints increased after the emergency regime. In February, the Police of that country received 104 complaints. In March (starting month of the regime) it reached 148, in April 176 and in May 183.

In mid-December, the Nayib Bukele presidency, through the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Security, announced reforms to the Anti-extortion Law in El Salvador, which consisted of imprisoning those who paid extortion to gangs and those who covered up this crime.

See also: President Bukele closes the year with the acceptance of Salvadorans

But the announcement caused a stir among citizens who questioned the possibility of being imprisoned for paying extortion. The reform ended without being sent to Congress.

What impact does extortion have in these countries?

Common gangs and gangs have used various forms of extortion: from a piece of paper under the business door, to a call where an alleged gang leader demands payment.

“The consequences of extortion are not only economic but also social and psychological. Victims of this crime face permanent states of stress, anxiety and hopelessness”, adds the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

But ASJ goes further. According to the non-governmental organization, extortion translates into a chain of violent crimes such as threats, kidnappings and even homicides. It is also a brake on the economic growth of countries, as it closes businesses and prevents the opening of others.

“Extortion has also contributed to the growth of gangs: it has allowed them to have a stable source of income, which in turn has turned them into organized crime structures that manage and launder enormous amounts of money,” they explain in their latest study. .

Despite the complaints, for ASJ the impact of the extortion is still not fully visible, since the dark figure behind it continues to be greater.

In Honduras, they conclude, 99% of cases are not reported.

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Written by Editor TLN

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