Massive underreporting of extortion in Guatemala makes it difficult to gauge the scope of the crime, according to a policy research agency, but one thing is clear: it has become a huge source of trouble for the population.
In a report titled "Understanding the Phenomenon of Extortion in Guatemala," the Center for National Economic Research (CIEN) writes that extortion is the second biggest security concern of Guatemalans after homicides. However, the available figures do not tell the full story.
"The formal accusations can give an idea of the evolution of the crime, but with serious limitations in their interpretation," states CIEN.
CIEN points to the significant differences in extortion statistics gathered by the Public Ministry (MP) and national police (PNC).
From January 2014 through September, the police recorded 5,009 extortion cases, and the MP counted 5,997. While the MP recorded 9,448 cases in 2010, the PNC counted fewer than 6,000.
Meanwhile, the police's Anti-Extortion Task Force (FTE) has counted around 12,000 extortion cases since its creation in 2012, with 80 percent of the perpetrators based in prisons. The country's penitentiary system, however, maintains that under 5 percent of extortions are committed from prisons.
According to police records, the bulk of reported extortion cases between 2011 and 2014 -- about 70 percent -- targeted households, while 23 percent targeted businesses, and 6 percent targeted the transport sector.
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What is clear from both the PNC and MP numbers is that there was a spike in extortion reports after 2004, though there has been a slight drop in the past two years. CIEN hypothesizes that a particularly dramatic rise after 2008 may have been due to new anti-extortion measures encouraging people to report the crime. These included a 2009 reform to the existing law defining the crime of extortion and its penalties, the 2009 creation of the "PANDA" group within the PNC -- dedicated to investigating gangs and extortion -- and of an anti-extortion unit in the MP.
Despite the rise in reports, just 7,622 extortion cases entered the judicial system between 2005 and 2014, and 1,838 resulted in a conviction.
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The CIEN report highlights how the so-called "cifra negra" -- the number of crimes that go unreported, due to factors such as fear of repercussions or a belief that reporting won't produce results -- conceals the true scale of extortion in Guatemala. With just 15 percent of reported cases even entering the judicial system, and less than 4 percent resolved in favor of the victim, it is not hard to understand why this reporting gap exists.
Some unofficial figures help give a sense of the scale of underreporting.
In a country of slightly over 14.5 million residents, the official statistics indicate that even in 2010 -- the year with the highest number of extortion reports, according to the MP -- six of every 10,000 Guatemalans were victims of this crime. And yet, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), self-reported figures from survey respondents across Latin America indicate that extortion occurs at more than 10 times this rate, or eight cases per every 1,000 residents (pdf).
There are plenty of indications of the insecurity caused by extortion in Guatemala. According to one NGO, 700 Guatemalans were killed by extortionists between January and July this year. The professions most vulnerable to the crime are reportedly small businesses, small farms and motorcycle taxis. In August this year, an entire shopping center was closed in Mixco, just outside Guatemala City, after extortionists told shop owners they would each have to regularly pay some $655 to keep operating. The threat of extortion has also led to the suspension of major bus routes, while nearly 100 public transport drivers were murdered in the first half of 2013, many likely in extortion-related killings.
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The gangs dedicated to this activity are thought to make about $61 million a year -- a number that, like the rest of the government figures regarding extortion, may be a significant underestimation.
And it is not just the country's "mara" street gangs -- such as the Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) -- profiting from the trade. In fact, the government estimates that street gangs are responsible for around a third of extortion cases, with a plethora of small-scale extortion groups making up the other 65 percent. Corrupt police agents also contribute: according to Guatemala's interior minister, more than 1,000 police have been removed from the force since 2012 for crimes including kidnapping and extortion.
The CIEN report comes just months after the Guatemalan government announced a new anti-extortion plan involving a hotline for victims to report the crime to a specialized group of prosecutors.
But in order to encourage citizens to report extortion -- a first step towards any adequate solution to the problem -- authorities will first have to gain their trust. The most obvious step in this regard would be to demonstrate that the judicial system is capable of successfully prosecuting extortion cases. Guatemala has experimented with mass prosecutions -- as in a landmark case that saw 86 gang members sentenced in a joint trial -- though this comes with human rights issues.
CIEN noted the need for a comprehensive anti-extortion policy and the creation of a single body responsible for coordinating investigations and collecting data about the crime, rather than various units housed under different government and security bodies.
As a shorter-term measure, the agency suggested carrying out victimization surveys to get a sense of the true scope and impact of extortion.