Even under the best of circumstances, there are few incentives to become a cooperating witness in an extortion case in El Salvador. And, as one witness has found out, participation is no guarantee that anything will change.

He was tired. It had been going on for over a decade, and he decided that it was time to stop complaining just to his family and close friends about the systematic extortion of his bus route by the street gangs. It was time to make a formal complaint to the police and the Attorney General’s Office.

His initial contact was good, he told InSight Crime after agreeing to talk, provided we did not reveal his identity, his codename in the case, or the case in which he participated. Any part of this information could compromise him and his family. (To corroborate his story, InSight Crime had access to the case file, colleagues in other bus cooperatives, and others who participated in the investigation.)

In those first few meetings, he gave the detectives and prosecutors good information, the type they could build a case on, and they did. The case was against a bus operator and his gang accomplice for extortion and money laundering. The indictment says that the operator was the middle-man for the gang leader who systematically extorted the other bus owners along the same route.

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At some point, the gang leader began to use the interlocutor to obtain buses for himself and his family. The bus operator put some of these buses in his name, the indictment says. It was a fairly typical scheme, the type that showed how the gangs had gone from street hoodlums to a petty mafia. Numerous similar cases have been prosecuted.

With the help of the witness, the prosecutors listened to phone calls, obtained financial records, and tracked properties of the bus operator, his family, and the gang leader. They established that some of the purchase orders were falsified in order to launder some of the extortion proceeds. They found that the bus operator bought several cars and homes, one of which was bought with cash and converted into a motel.

The informant felt okay about the places where he met with officials, in particular one building where they could talk in relative privacy. The office is located in a place where gangs do not have a strong presence. To intimidate informants and find out who they are, gangs are known to post people on the edges of official buildings, places where witnesses speak to detectives and prosecutors. Gangs have also infiltrated police and prosecutors’ offices, so speaking in an open setting to an investigator can be uncomfortable and dangerous.

He worried, of course. The case was against a powerful clique, one that had dominated that bus route for years. The leader of the clique had already been charged with participating in the murders of 58 others, many of those because the leader and others in the gang suspected they were informants against the gang. He had also been charged with “terrorism” and drug trafficking-related crimes.

For the trial, the informant was going to be gone for a few days and needed a cover story for his fellow bus operators. The prosecutors told him they could help with a tourist visa to the US, but when that was slow in coming, he asked them if they could get him to the border with Guatemala, or get some kind of stamp on his passport. It never happened, and that worried him.

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Instead, around the time of the trial, they took him to a hotel. The day before he was to testify, he says they picked him up and drove him to a prosecutor’s office. The car did not have tinted windows and that worried him. At the office, they did a role play to prepare him for trial. The prosecutor yelled, tried to rattle him. It reminded him of a television show.

The next day, he gave testimony. His face was covered on the way in, but the judge and his secretary saw his face. That worried him too. 

The case proceeded, and his worries grew. Other bus operators and owners were asking questions about his absence. He had nothing on his passport, but he told them he’d gone out of the country for a workshop. One of them asked to see his passport, but he managed to change the subject and the colleague seemed to forget about it.

Meanwhile, other cases popped up. He decided, perhaps against his better judgment at that point, to help on two extortion cases. A third case is a homicide; he is not helping with that one, he says, because he doesn’t have any privileged information. And that one really worries him.

In all, it has taken nearly three years for the original extortion case to snake through the system. At the beginning, he was hopeful, optimistic even. In addition to his testimony, they have testimonies from police and an accountant. They have documents to show the money laundering. They have intercepted phone calls to show the relationship between the bus operator and the gang leader.

But the case has taken a turn for the worse. Though a judgment in their case is expected in the coming weeks, they were given ankle bracelets and let out of jail. That has worried him the most. 

Illustration: Juan José Restrepo

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...