Through the use of violence, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18) have become the most feared criminal brands in the Northern Triangle. Much of their violence is used to coerce individuals or businesses into paying extortion fees. Widespread fear of these gangs has allowed independent, copycat actors to emerge and conduct their own extortion schemes.

Authorities say such imitators have increased in recent years. In August 2018, for example, Guatemalan authorities dismantled a criminal structure that had allegedly extorted more than $36,000 from various taxis, transport companies and other businesses. None of the criminals, however, were MS13 or Barrio 18 members.

*This investigation into extortion in the Northern Triangle was carried out as part of a joint project with the Global Initiative.

How much extortion can be attributed to gang imitators is unclear. The Guatemalan government estimated in 2016 that some 90 percent of extortion threats came from copycat groups, rather than the gangs, although that figure is disputed by think-tanks and experts who maintain that around two-thirds of extortion rings are controlled by gangs. Common criminals pretending to be from gangs carry out seven out of ten extortion threats in Honduras, according to authorities there. In El Salvador, César Ortega, head of the elite police force called “Jaguares,” said as much as 70 percent of extortion threats come from non-gang actors.

The lack of confidence in the authorities, impunity and the ubiquity of extortion throughout the region encourage non-gang criminal actors to enter the market.

One major difference between extortion threats from the gangs and those from copycat groups, according to Francisco Cisneros, head of the Specialized Division for Criminal Investigation (División Especializada en Investigación Criminal – DEIC) in Guatemala, is copycats don’t usually kill.

“It’s a defining factor that helps us know from the start if it is a gang extortion or a copycat one: Here the gangs will take a phone to a person or a business and make the threat. There’s no negotiating. If you don’t pay they try and kill you. The imitators, on the other hand, will make a threat, not negotiate, make another threat, not negotiate, but not make an attempt on the person’s life,” Cisneros said.

“The problem is that here in Guatemala because the victims don’t know if the threats are coming from the gang or not, they worry that further down the line they could be killed so they tend to pay.”

*This investigation into extortion in the Northern Triangle was carried out as part of a joint project with the Global Initiative.

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