Seven out of ten extortion cases in Honduras are carried out by common criminals pretending to be from gangs, according to the authorities, showing how the sense of insecurity created by the proliferation of corruption and organized crime itself fuels further criminality.
Honduras' National Anti-extortion Force (FNA) said extortion in the country is carried out by three main groups: the street gangs known as "maras," corrupt police, and extortion rings that pose as maras to scare their victims into paying. Of these, the extortion rings of common criminals account for approximately 70 percent of cases, reported La Prensa.
The rings rarely know their victims, but rely on instilling fear by invoking the names of maras such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, or by using personal details gleaned from sources such as social media networks and telephone directories.
The crime is most commonly carried out by phone, via internet, or through personal visits or notes sent to companies to demand money, according to the FNA. Those most affected are residents in poor areas, transport companies and small and medium businesses.
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According to some estimates, the maras earn some $59 million a year from extortion. As highlighted by the FNA, corrupt factions of the police are also widely involved. However, if the FNA figures are accurate, then the principal driver of extortion in Honduras is not the criminal and corrupt organizations widely blamed for the country's security crisis, but enterprising criminals capitalizing on the sense of fear and insecurity these organizations have created.
Although extortion is nothing new in Honduras, it has been evolving -- demonstrated not only by the proliferation of specialist extortion networks but also by changing methods, such as the growing use of the internet. In early July, Proceso Digital highlighted the use of social networks to carry out extortion. The Internet can be used to provide offenders with important information about their victims, with many people leaving personal details or upcoming plans open for public viewing on social networking sites such as Facebook.
The addition in March of the FNA to the existing Anti-extortion Unit within the National Special Investigation Services (DNSEI) underscores the magnitude of the problem, and how security forces have so far struggled to make any sort of impact in tackling extortion.