El Salvador’s sugarcane industry and the national police have succeeded in reining in extortion in the countryside by way of a private-public partnership that stands as a potential blueprint for rural economic actors to follow across the region. 

It all began with a wave of criminal migration. Under pressure from El Salvador’s security forces in urban centers, members of the powerful Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18) turned their attention to the Central American nation’s countryside and potential extortion markets there. Among them stood El Salvador’s 7,000 sugarcane producers. 

*This article is part of an investigation on state and community responses to 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.

“The gangs’ reasoning was simple: there is a lot of money in sugarcane and its producers are easy targets. By 2011, some cooperatives were paying $30,000 annually,” Luis Trigueros of El Salvador’s Sugar Association (Asociación Azucarera de El Salvador – AAES) remembered. 

Victims had every reason to pay. As everywhere in the country, gangs were ready to see their threats through. “In the sugar industry some eight or ten individuals were killed for not paying the ‘renta’ (extortion fee),” Trigueros explained.  

But while entire parts of the country’s economy remain subject to systematic extortion, El Salvador’s sugarcane sector appears to have found a way out by providing material and logistical support to the country’s police, while working hand in hand to reconstruct broken ties between law enforcement and communities. 

“Cooperatives that paid $25,000 a year haven’t paid anything in three years,” said Trigueros. “There are still some sugar producers that pay extortion, but a much smaller number, and much smaller fees.” 

Rising Rural Extortion

Grown in 10 of 14 departments, sugar cane in El Salvador is a near-50,000 labor strong industry that generates above $185 million a year. For gangs that rely on extortion as a primary source of revenue, the sector was a treasure waiting to be plundered.  

Although rural extortion had begun growing since 2009, the crime boomed within the sugar industry following a large extortion payment delivered 2011 in the Jiquilisco municipality of the Bajo Lempa region. 

“They approached a sugarcane producer over there and the payment was quite large, I think that’s what sent the signal to all gang members that it was easy to operate in rural areas,” Trigueros explained. Extortion spread rapidly and particularly along the coast in the La Paz, San Vicente and La Libertad departments.  

The modus operandi was quite simple. Gangs would contact either the owner or the farm manager and demand an average of $200 dollars a month for access to the fields. As in other sectors, the extortionist would at times request jobs for gang members instead of direct monetary payments. And in addition to taxing access to the fields, gangs would also request a fee from sugarcane transporters.  

Other rural economic actors were targeted. Ranchers paid a fee per animal, and the gangs would destroy coffee fields of uncooperative growers. In all, Triguero believes that the agro-industrial sector came to pay between three and four million dollars a year in extortion. 

“Law enforcement wasn’t ready for this, the people didn’t trust them, nobody denounced extortion because they would kill them or the workers in the area. That applied to the whole agro-industry,” he said. 

With no faith in the government’s capacity to tackle the issue, some took matters into their own hands, Trigueros recalled. 

“I’ve got a property in Sonsonate and I was there one day when three or four men came up to me and said: ‘We’re desperate … Every night they go up and attack four or five houses in a row… The gang members just take everything they want. What can we do?’ 

“Tell the police, I told them. ‘We don’t trust the police’,” the individuals told Triguero, echoing the widespread distrust the majority of the El Salvadoran population has towards its law enforcement. 

“So then I told them,” Triguero continued: “You know who they are … you know where they live. 

“They said goodbye. Two weeks later four corpses showed up; three days later another three dead bodies were found … After that, the area wasn’t troubled for a long time.” 

The Private-Public Partnership

In 2009, as gangs began expanding in the countryside, an association of producers from all agro-industrial sectors had begun testing out the idea of supporting the police in their public security tasks. Although the project fell through, sugarcane producers maintained their efforts independently from the other agro-industrial sectors and in October 2013, launched a program to provide material and logistical support to the National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil – PNC) in the La Libertad department.  

“The first program was launched with 5 patrols, each patrol composed of three police officers that worked four day-shifts,” Trigueros explained. 

“We provided the motorcycles, one for every officer, and all the logistics. We didn’t give them to the police. We still administer them.” 

Due to the experiment’s success in bettering security conditions, the program was made permanent in 2014 following the harvest season. Since then and over the past four years, the number of patrols in La Libertad has tripled, while the program has been replicated across El Salvador in areas where sugarcane is grown, with a national total of 39 operational patrols — nearly 120 men. 

In June 2016, the AAES (national sugarcane association) and El Salvador’s government signed an agreement to formally establish the private-public partnership.  

The agreement establishes that the AAES will provide motorcycles, pickup vehicles, radios and even housing for officers participating in the program or deployed to secure areas during harvest. The government, on the other hand, provides trained men. According to Trigueros, this led to a marked drop in extortion rates.

The Keys to Success

The partnership was not simply about providing law enforcement. Trigueros insists it also brought the police closer to the local community, when the latter’s distrust in law enforcement was widely considered one of the main barriers to bringing down extortion. 

“The officers began doing what a community police force is meant to do: connect with the people,” Trigueros said. “They would grab a kid working as a gang look-out, bring him to his parents and say: ‘Look, this is what your kid is messing with, it’s going to be on you when this kid gets into serious trouble’.” 

As trust began to grow, more and more sugarcane producers and other extortion victims began denouncing, offering intelligence law enforcement could act on to dismantle extortion groups. Sugar professionals have gone so far as to provide drones for law enforcement to hover over fields where gang members had taken refuge in order to locate the suspects. 

The partnership’s success seems to rest on the level of organization of El Salvador’s sugar sector. All the country’s sugar producers process their product through just six mills, which essentially served as structural nodes around which the sector organized itself. 

“Initially when we started holding our meetings at the mills, we called them the Zafra meetings (sugar harvest meetings) in which the miller, the producers and the government participated,” Trigueros noted. 

Trigueros said that his Guatemalan and Honduran counterparts are looking at the possibility of replicating the example set by El Salvador. Given the sums lost to extortion and private security’s high cost, some such as Jorge Daboub, the former president of the National Association of Private Companies (Asociación Nacional de Empresas Privadas), argue that financially supporting the government may be the private sector’s cheapest option against extortion on the long run.  

“Think about it this way: if I have private security, I have bodies on the ground, but I can’t act legally. In other words, it’s like looking after just yourself and that’s not the way of the agro-industry. The idea is that all the communities in our area of influence can benefit, and the only way to reach that is with law enforcement,” Trigueros said.

“The truth is, the state can’t solve the problem on its own, we have to help,” he noted pragmatically.

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