Extortion in Central America comes in many forms and targets different victims. The actors behind it also vary, as does the way in which these illicit earnings exchange hands.
In the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, mass systematic schemes target entire transport systems. But random, criminal opportunists also try their hand, as do corrupt law enforcement officials and other criminal groups.
In Costa Rica and Panama, growing extortion-related markets such as loansharking can be managed by groups or individuals.
Business owners large and small, formal and informal, sex workers, residents in gang-controlled neighborhoods, teachers — few are spared from extortion. Even local governments, which are sometimes complicit, can be controlled by this criminal force.
The actors behind it range from the street gangs and copycat groups that imitate them, to corrupt law enforcement officials and other criminal groups involved in drug trafficking and loansharking.
And value doesn’t just change hands in the form of cash and bank transfers. Products, possessions, human beings and even sexual services and favors are handed over under threat.
In this section, we outline some notable extortion methods that we discovered during our investigation in Central America in a joint project with the Global Initiative.
A visit to a women’s prison in Guatemala shows the increasing role that women play in extortion rackets. The ubiquity of extortion markets in urban, poor neighborhoods has converted this criminal economy into a major source of informal employment for women — many of whom have connections to members of gangs.
Financial extortion in El Salvador spares neither women nor men. But women simultaneously suffer from a more insidious form of extortion shaped by the threat of sexual violence that blurs the lines between extortion, slavery and human trafficking.
Costa Rica’s economic crisis and its strategic position along drug trafficking routes have created the perfect storm for a new type of extortion to take root: loan sharking.
The gangs’ bloody business of extorting transport in Guatemala has provided a pernicious environment and the perfect cover for some economic and political elite to embezzle millions of dollars from state coffer.
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.
El Salvador’s groundbreaking “Operación Jaque” (Operation Check) has provided a wealth of information on the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), revealing the gang’s financial inner workings, its money laundering mechanisms and details about its hierarchical structure.
In Panama, women in the sex trade are exposed to monetary and sexual extortion by corrupt police officers. But a new prosecution system has gone some way to reducing this abuse of power.
Widespread fear of street gangs in the Northern Triangle countries is being exploited by copycat groups who pose as gang members to extort victims. These criminal operators are now an important part of the criminal problem.