It was one of Alejandro Giammattei’s most emphatic promises.
One year later, the Interior Ministry supported his strategy to reduce extortions by cutting off access to communication devices among the inmates responsible for making extortive phone calls from jail. However, an overcrowded prison system already short on resources failed to hit the mark.
It was symptomatic: reports of extortion jumped from 10 to 15 per week in the western department of Quetzaltenango in mid-November 2020. An anti-extortion investigator from the department’s Attorney General's office stated that the reason behind this was the transfer of six former Barrio 18 members from Pavón prison in Guatemala department to Cantel prison, in Quetzaltenango, a week earlier.
While the six Barrio 18 members appeared at various court hearings related to an extortion case, a new wave of extortions began occurring on public transport in Quetzaltenango. It was evident: the gang members had access to cell phones through the general inmate population at the prison.
“They [should have] isolated them; that's worked for us so that they don't have access to cell phones,” stated the investigator, who prefers not to be identified by name. However, in March 2020, the prison system announced that they would separate all inmates linked to extortion from the rest of the prison population at Cantel and Pavón, and then throughout the rest of the country’s prisons.
The objective was clear: to stop extortion phone calls from prisons, which are responsible for 70 percent of Guatemala's extortions, according to David Boteo, chief of the National Division Against Gang Development (División Nacional contra el Desarrollo de Pandillas - Dipanda) and the National Civil Police’s (PNC) anti-extortion unit.
However, the Cantel case, among others, demonstrated that the plan didn’t work. Extortions declined temporarily due to indirect effects of the pandemic, but after a short pause, they started up again, particularly those coming from the prisons.
Cell Phones Arrive in Jail, Out of Fear or Corruption
""How much will you charge me for sneaking in a device?" one inmate asked me a while ago. "What device?” I asked him jokingly, "A microwave or a radio?"" recalled ‘A’, a prison guard who asked to remain anonymous. The man wanted a cell phone. ‘A’ says that he has refused in the past and that he has been threatened for doing so. Other times, the inmates simply tried another guard. They seek out those who oversee the illegal entry of other illicit objects into the prison and blackmail them by threatening to report them.
Other guards turn a blind eye, and not just out of corruption or fear. If they report an in-house bribery attempt, they end up being summoned to a court of law, where they are required to attend the hearing and are left to cover their own transportation expenses, says A. So they pretend not to see anything. It happens in all prisons. For example, in Pavón alone, authorities seized 38 cellphones between June and September. According to Dipanda, Pavón is one of the most problematic prisons, along with Cantel (even though it receives support from the prison system), Canada and the Preventive Men's Center in Puerto Barrios.
“There is total degeneracy and corruption among the guards, wardens and deputy directors,” Boteo points out, although he acknowledges that corruption is present within all institutions, including the police the Attorney General’s Office and the judicial branch.
Extortions Went Down and Up Again
In 2020, the department reported a drop of at least 1,000 extortion cases compared to 2019, according to the Interior Ministry, citing police data. While figures vary across different institutions, all reflect the first drop in five years between January and April 2020. The Interior Ministry hoped this decline would be sustainable by relying on prisons to keep extortionists from being unable to communicate with the outside, despite the prison system being overpopulated by 400 percent.
By May and September, cases went up. October and November saw a slight dip but by December 2020, the drastic decline from earlier in the year had ended and the monthly extortion rate was back at levels seen in February.
Between January and February 2020, the recently inaugurated administration of President Alejandro Giammattei deployed preventative measures at municipalities in the departments of Guatemala, Chimaltenango and Escuintla. “The idea was to reduce criminality in the streets,” explains Boteo. This allowed for the arrests of gang members linked to extortion and targeted killings.
The Interior Ministry also cracked down on "copycat" extortionists who pretend to be gang members in order to intimidate their victims but lack the resources to carry out their threats. Cantel and Pavón were the primary sources of these extortion calls. Estimates by the anti-extortion unit of the Attorney General’s Office indicate that in 2019, at least half of extortion calls in the Guatemala department and 95 percent of cases in the southwestern part of the country originated in Cantel, Quetzaltenango.
Authorities attribute the decline from 1,590 cases in January 2020 to 936 in March to the crackdown on copycats and preventative measures established in Guatemala and Chimaltenango, two hubs of major gang activity.
In August 2019, in Quetzaltenango, Alejandro Giammattei said that if he won the presidency, his government would be “relentless against gangs.” He proposed a bill to identify them as terrorist groups, a promise that would be distorted in February and November 2020 by two legislative proposals, whose wording gave room for protesters to be criminalized more than gang members.
As a presidential candidate, Giammattei touted stricter prison conditions for gang members, despite prisons being overcrowded and critically short-staffed. “The population capacity of the prison system was increased in 1996,” says Gerardo Villamar, a public defender focused on due process at Guatemala's Attorney General's Office for Human Rights. Giammattei was well aware of this issue as he was director of the national prison system, when prisons were already severely overpopulated and short of funds.
In March 2020, the Interior Ministry announced it had set up prison structures to separate copycat extortionists in Cantel and Pavón from the rest of the inmates. Boteo said they were held in cells without power outlets, preventing them from charging cellphones. Neutralizing the copycats, responsible for 80 percent of extortion calls, allowed for resources to be concentrated on violent extortion by gang members. For this reason, in March, the prison system transferred MS13 gang leaders from Fraijanes II to a sector of the Pavoncito prison where they would be kept incommunicado.
Decline in Extortions Lasted as Long as Confinement
Meanwhile, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country led to two containment measures that helped reduce extortion: the suspensions of public transport routes and police visits, the latter being the main way extortionists get access to cellphones. Boteo admitted that it would have been impossible to implement these measures for seven months without the pandemic. The slow resumption of public transport prevented more drastic increases in the number of cases, despite a failure to isolate the Barrio 18 gang leaders at the El Infiernito prison, in Escuintla, the main origin of extortion calls to public transport drivers and companies.
The rise of extortion in May revealed the holes in the government's plan. Boteo said that this month a group of copycat inmates resumed the extortive calls from Pavón, after they filed petitions that forced the prison system to take the inmates out of isolation and return them to the general prison population. “They argued that this violated their human rights, but it’s false,” he said. “They are inmates with two or three convictions, so it is worth it to them to continue extorting”.
In El Infiernito, the leaders of Barrio 18 continued to direct extortions in coordination with the deputy chiefs in Sector 11 of the Preventive Detention Center in zone 18, in the capital. This could only occur because they had illegal access to cellphones and/or Internet (similar to that discovered last October in the Canada Prison Farm in Escuintla).
Transferring Gang Members a Show of Strength
On August 20, the Interior Ministry transferred 39 Barrio 18 leaders and three other inmates to the Preventive Zone 18 — a stopover in their transfer to other prisons. They remained in the former mayor’s office, a separate enclosure from Sector 11. On August 31, while the penitentiary system was taking them to Fraijanes II, Pavón, the Mariscal Zavala Military Brigade and Fort Matamoros, a Barrio 18 group in El Infiernito took ten guards hostage and demanded that its leaders be returned to that prison.
The cell change was ready but a court order prevented the transfer of gang leader Aldo Dupié Ochoa Mejía (aka El Lobo) to Matamoros and forced the penitentiary system to put him in Sector 11 of the Preventive facility. It was a petition that permitted Ochoa to meet for 24 hours with the secondary leaders of Barrio 18. Boteo says that the meeting was likely key to the coordination of the extortion of public transport on the eve of its phased resumption.
The hostage crisis at El Infiernito ended on September 1, hours before the Interior Ministry managed to challenge the court order and move Ochoa to Matamoros. On September 3, another group within Barrio 18 in Sector 11 of the Preventive facility — from where they had recently taken Ochoa— took four other guards hostage. The group said that the lives of gang members in Pavón were in danger, and demanded the transfer of all the gang leaders to Fraijanes II, but it deposed the measures a day later, with no results.
On September 15, the press reported on the murder of a gang member in Pavón. The prison system and Dipanda said that it was not one of the members transferred from Escuintla, that in that prison there were only copycats, and former members of Barrio 18 and MS in separate cells. Hours later, the former Minister of the Interior, reacted with the announcement that two new prisons would be built in 2021, with a budget of 5.9 million quetzales ($760,000), a space for 1,920 inmates that would reduce overcrowding. In practice, it would reduce overpopulation from 400 percent to 370 percent, without considering the fact that in 2021 there would be more inmates than the 25,840 in October.
Copycats Gained Ground
By then, prison control was more elusive than authorities admitted. During the last week of September, the owner of a taxi fleet, who wished to remain anonymous, revealed that he never stopped paying 125 quetzales ($16) per taxi, per week, to the wife of one of the Barrio 18 leaders transferred to the capital—the same ones that, according to the Interior Ministry, were cut off from communication.
Nevertheless, Boteo claims that the gang leaders ordered for extortions to be put on hold once the pandemic began in March, up until public transport began to operate again. Additionally, he explains that if the extortions increased, it is because the cases of the copycats increased from 80 percent to 90 percent, while those from the gangs fell from 20 percent to 10 percent.
“Copycat calls ballooned, due to the anarchy in the prisons,” he added. The head of Dipanda says that the extortionist inmates (including the gang members) had access to cellphones sent in packages, when there were no visits between March and October. Nevertheless, the spokesman for the penitentiary service, Carlos Morales, said in September that they were reviewing all the packages. ‘A’, the prison guard, hears this and laughs. He adds that some guards facilitate the smuggling of cellphones.
By September, the extortion rate was 81.6 (for every 100,000 residents), lower than in December 2019, according to the National Economic Research Center (Centro de Investigaciones Económicas Nacionales - CIEN), which analyzed PNC figures. There were less extortions (9,579) compared to one year prior (10,487). But the monthly number did not go down as sharply, partially because prisons visits resumed on October 28 not go down by a thousand, partly because of the resumption of visits to prisons on October 28 (access to more cellphones) and the partial resumption of public transport, already accessible to extortionists.
The CIEN reports that, according to the 2018 National Perception and Victimization Survey (Encuesta Nacional de Percepción y Victimización - Enpevi), 60 percent of the victims were people in their homes, 30 percent were shopkeepers, and 6 percent were transporters, although Dipanda and the Attorney General’s Office claim that the main group issuing complaints are transporters, followed by merchants. The Enpevi also suggests that only one in three extortions is reported.
No prison system officials spoke of inmates' access to cell phones to make extortion calls. The spokesman did not respond to seven interview requests made between October and November, and on November 12, the former Vice Minister Gendri Reyes (since promoted to Minister of the Interior) also did not respond to an interview request sent via text message.
Increasing Sentences Does Not Work
By December, Congress concluded its activities, without discussing nor approving the bill to designate the gangs as terrorist groups, taken to the plenary session in September with votes in favor by all three commissions. The initiative considers prison sentences of 10 to 30 years that would lead to even more overcrowded prisons. The extortionists would stay behind bars for longer, although many are already serving lengthy prison sentences, which have not led to a decline in extortions.
“The increase in duration of prison sentences only strengthens the control that these prison groups have on the streets," says José Miguel Cruz, a Salvadoran academic who is an expert in gang analysis. “By denying them the possibility of rehabilitation, they have nothing to lose but to continue generating money that benefits them through extortion”. Ochoa, alias “El Lobo,” for example, is sentenced to 1,670 years in prison. The law prohibits imprisonment of over 50 years, but it is likely that he will remain in prison for the rest of his life for having committed multiple crimes.
Boteo is convinced that the complexity of extortion calls and their implications require an inter-institutional effort. Carmen Aída Ibarra, an activist for the Pro-Justice Movement, adds that they need a holistic focus. “It is not just about building more prisons,” she says. Ibarra speaks of a long term process, with a budget that allows the Organic Law of the Prison Regime to be fully implemented, to address the current issues within the penitentiary system.
Police and Prison Guards: A Tense Relationship
“The prison system cannot make decisions that impact the treatment of the inmate population without the participation of other members of the justice system,” warns the activist. Otherwise, the government will continue to face obstacles when trying to transfer or isolate extortionists.
In July and August, the authorities found eight cell phones in one preventive facility. On September 5, a day after the hostage-taking and an exhaustive requisition in Sector 11, agents of the PNC surprised a guard with 8,000 quetzales ($1,000), according to ‘A,’ the guard that explained how cellphones enter the prisons.
The surprised guard confessed that a gang member paid him that sum to get him a cell phone. Considering that a guard earns 5,800 quetzales per month ($742) minus the legal tax deductions, it was a significant amount. According to ‘A,’ the guard gave the police the cell phone and the money so they would not arrest him.
But the cellphone did not appear. In September, the Interior Ministry did not report confiscated cell phones in the preventative facility and Boteo indicated that he had never heard of the case mentioned by ‘A.’ The police chief adds that relations between authorities and prison guards are tense. “[The guards] see us as enemies because we have taken away their business,” says Boteo. “We have reported guards for bringing [illicit] objects into the prison."
During the first seven months of the pandemic, authorities seized 15 cell phones in Cantel, before they transferred the six former gang members. By October, Quetzaltenango was the department with the third-highest extortion rate in the country, after Guatemala and Escuintla, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Diálogos reported that it had the ninth highest interannual departmental extortion rate. Jalapa and Retalhuleu, are also among five departments with the most complaints filed, according to a November report by the CIEN and the National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil - PNC).
Despite the decline in cases in 2020, on a national level, there was a minimum average of one extortion per houshold, according to data from the police and the Attorney General’s Office. “With the pandemic, [extortions] went down, but as soon as [the extortionists] get their hands on phones and get to work, they are going to increase as before, especially if we do not control this,” says the investigator from the Attorney General's Office in Quetzaltenango, where the transfer of gang members in November led to an increase in cases. “Requisitions do not work, because you take away ten cellphones [from the inmates] and they smuggle 20 in,” he added.
Boteo agrees, even after the PNC arrested Edgar Amílcar Estrada, alias "El Choper," head of Crazy Rich, one of the most important cliques within Barrio 18. The authorities surprised him on December 30 in Guatemala City, in an area where the base price for a house is 697,000 quetzales ($89,000) and where Estrada lived thanks to his revenue from extortion The arrest was a case of déjà vu. Three months beforehand, police had arrested the former head of the Crazy Rich clique, Melvin Ventura Esquite, alias "Smaily," at another luxury condominium in Mixco. Both received their orders from associates in prison and both ended up jailed in the same penitentiaries where authorities had tried and failed to cut extortionists off from communicating with the outside world.
“It’s a source of frustration. It makes no sense to keep going back [to search the prisons] and to know that they continue calling from inside,” the police chief admits.