In parts of Guatemala City, opening a small business or setting up an informal stall can carry a death sentence. Every week, shopkeepers and business owners pay extortion in exchange for their lives.

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and 18th Street (Barrio 18) gangs as well as lone extortionists who imitate gang members are all taking their cut from this pool of victims.

The Trash Business

At least 550 garbage trucks drive around Guatemala City, collecting trash from households and businesses three times a week and collecting their dues once a month. Each of these yellow trucks bears a number painted black on both sides that identifies the vehicle and the owner with the municipal registry. Approximately 300 truck owners have been authorized by municipal authorities to carry out and charge for garbage collection.

*This article is part of an investigation on various types of extortion in Central America and was carried out by InSight Crime as a joint project with the Global Initiative. See the rest of the series here.

These businessmen are grouped in an association headed by a board of directors. In October 2017, all affiliates were called to a general session where they were told that one of the pilots had been given a phone with the order to pass it on to the directors. Once the communication channel was established, the extortionists called and demanded a weekly 100 quetzales ($13.5) for every truck in circulation and warned that anyone who refused to pay would die. The extortion fee has doubled since then, allegedly because a second group has begun extorting the association, explained a truck owner who asked to remain anonymous.

“They decided it was best to pay because they [the gang members] began shooting at our trucks and they killed the son of one our colleagues,” the truck owner said. “It gives you the chills.”

The same owner had managed to escape individual extortion attempts three times since 2014 by denouncing the crime to Guatemala’s anti-gang unit (Unidad Antipandillas de la Policía Nacional Civil – DIPANDA) that specializes in extortion cases. But this time was different.

“It happened to us three times … but now extortion is targeting all truck owners and we have to pay,” the source said, explaining that many suspect one of the board directors to be in on the scheme. The reason, according to the source, is that extortion fees are collected methodically in an order that follows the very municipal registry of every authorized garbage truck and its owner. In total, the extortion builds up to nearly $60,000 a month.

Every truck from which extortion is collected has to bear a black dot of a certain size next to the registry number appearing on the sides. That is how gangs know who pays and who doesn’t.

Marketplaces, the Real Gold Mines

San Martín de Porres in the northern Zone 6 is one of Guatemala City’s largest markets with a huge variety of products. Vegetables, fruits, meat, chicken, clothing, shoes, phones, maintenance products, replacement parts and second-hand clothing — anything can be found and bought there. Stalls are so numerous that they sprawl out into the surrounding area. Some streets are stacked with up to three rows of stalls that form wooden galleries through which one can only navigate by foot. The municipality charges each store between 150 and 3,000 quetzales (between $20 and $400) per month.

But an MS13 clique also operates in the market, according to the police. The group planned its extortion scheme by counting the number of slots painted out with yellow demarcations on the ground — marking where stalls can be set up — and started handing out mobile phones. And they fixed extortion fees from 100 to 300 quetzales (roughly $13 to $40), depending on their assessment of the size of the business.

A vendor from the San Martín de Porres market told InSight Crime how it all started three years back when gang members began slipping notes around to request 100 quetzales from each store. Vendors refused to pay at first, but quickly changed their minds after the public killing of several people by the gang. Since then, they all pay.

The extortion money is collected by the vendors themselves, with each victim identified by the market number and the type of store owned. The cash is placed in a bag and a designated vendor is ordered, via phone, to deliver it to the gang members. Their faces are never seen, but victims believe that they are between 15 and 20 years old. Female gang members are the ones tasked with delivering the phones and surveying the victims.

“The police came once and asked us all if we were paying extortion, but we weren’t about to says yes in front of everyone … If there was any point in denouncing I would have done it myself, but you see the police here and they don’t do anything,” argued a vendor.

Extortionists double the fee three times a year for “bonuses” called “the fish” during Easter Week in April, “bonus 14” in July and the “Christmas bonus” in December.

Under constant pressure and fear from the gangs, many were eventually forced to close shop. These abandoned spots can be opened once more, but on the condition that the new storeowner pay the monthly fee as well as an initial and sizeable down payment of between 50,000 and 75,000 quetzales (roughly $6,750 to $10,100) to the gang.

Victims are simply too afraid to speak out or denounce these activities. The MS13 has ordered all vendors to put a small Guatemalan flag somewhere on their stall or amid their products if they are up to date with extortion payments. And reprisal is instantaneous for those who are not.

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.