A visit to a women’s prison in the city of Quetzaltenango, 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 the MS13 or Barrio 18 gangs.
A knock on the huge, faded red door prompts a thin piece of wood placed over a makeshift square peephole to slide upwards. We are eyed by the guard inside, and the door opens. We step into a cold, dark atrium of what was once a beautiful colonial building. The walls are now painted a lurid green and at the end is a doorway blocked by bars.
Once a school, this is now a women’s prison in Quetzaltenango, a city in Guatemala’s western highlands. Beyond the bars at the end of the atrium is an open-air courtyard flanked by a wall of dirty yellow arches. Most of the 130 women inmates sit around on white plastic chairs, talking quietly. Some play with their young children, who are permitted to be with them in jail until they’re four years old.
When we step inside, there is a hush. The women are waiting for us. My companion Andrea Barrios from the non-profit Colectivo Artesana, which works with women in prisons across the country, explains we’re here to speak to those who are being processed for extortion. She says that the rest of the women can go about their business.
Of the hundred-plus women present, a few wander away. Most stay.
More Women Charged With Extortion
Extortion is the most common crime for which women are behind bars in Guatemala, and that statistic has been on the rise since 2009. In 2014, there were 382 women in prison for extortion. By 2017, the number had more than doubled, reaching 791 -- roughly a third of the total of 2,612 women held behind bars across the country, according to official figures.
“There was a tendency to criminalize women less so the gangs started to bring them in more -- not as members, but because they were less visible to the police,” Barrios told us.
Here at the Quetzaltenango prison, they line up to tell me their stories, most of which are strikingly similar. They were approached by a young male acquaintance, either in jail or on the outside, and were asked to lend their bank accounts, they explain. Most of the women say they were told that friends or family were going to send much-needed funds to their account, and that they would be doing them a huge favor by bringing those deposits into the prison or giving them to a “family member” on the outside.
Julia is one of the women who spoke with me. A 57-year-old housewife, she is short and stocky with shoulder-length hair. Julia said she was approached when she was visiting her son in prison.
One of his companions said his grandfather wanted to send him some money, so she received 1,000 quetzales (now about $136) and took it to him in prison. She said eight years passed before she was arrested by Guatemala’s anti-gang police in her house at 6 a.m. and accused of extortion on the basis of that one bank deposit.
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Dulce, 34, was arrested and taken to the prison just two weeks before I meet her. It was the second time she was jailed on extortion charges.
She didn’t go into much detail about the relationship she has with a gang member, but her tattooed eyebrows suggest it is a committed one. She was frank about how the gang used her bank account to collect extortion deposits: “At first I didn’t know [that it was dirty money], but then I did.”
When she talked about her two sons, now in the full custody of their father, she pauses and takes a deep breath. Huge tears start to roll down her cheeks. She says she’s sorry but she can’t stop. The circle of women around us watch her cry calmly; they’re more than used to it. A number of small children are wandering around the jail playing with empty Coke bottles and other trash. One of them, her daughter, plays at her feet as she cries.
‘Most Are Connected to the Gangs’
There is one more thing most of the women who spoke with us have in common: They say they were duped. They didn’t know their bank accounts were being used for extortion, they claim. They didn’t know the people asking them to lend their accounts were gang members, but they insist that they only let it happen once and then they closed their accounts but were arrested years later on the basis of one or two deposits.
Ana, who has a black line tattooed around her lips, said that when her boyfriend was put in jail, he wasn’t a member of the gang, but that he joined up behind bars. She tried to cut ties with him, she says, but she needed money for an operation for her young son, who was having trouble breathing. The child’s father promised to send money he was earning from work he was doing inside the prison to her account. But, as it turned out, the money coming into her account -- and that of her sister, Ana, who also got involved -- was extortion money. And now they’re both behind bars.
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Irma, a 58-year-old woman from Honduras who was in the prison on money-laundering charges, said that the women change their stories once they get caught.
“The majority of them know what they were doing, but they get here and they want to wash their hands of it. Most of them are connected to the gangs,” she says.
Barrios agrees: “They all have family or husbands in prison, and they’ve been told what to say because they think it will get them out.”
What is striking is how the connection of so many women to gang members already in jail helped suck them into the extortion market, either wittingly or unwittingly. Before they ended up here, many of them visited their gang member partners or sons or brothers in prison, and got initiated into their criminal ways, if they weren’t already.
In a reality characterized by a lack of job opportunities, poverty, decimated families and multiple children, their involvement in such schemes is understandable, sometimes necessary, and often naïve. Such involvement is nurtured by the lack of control over conjugal and family visits in Guatemala’s prisons, claims Barrios, something her organization is campaigning to change.
As we prepare to leave the jail, I watch the women sharing food and laughing as they watch their children play. Barrios doesn’t think the peace will last.
“They’re going to get 15-year sentences. They’re friends now, but they will become enemies and turn against each other and try to kill each other,” she says ominously.
Referring to the power of the gangs and the growing number of women in jail for crimes related to them, Irma, the Honduran inmate, is equally pessimistic.
“No one can stop this. Only God,” she says.