New data in Guatemala has revealed that almost half of all extortion phone calls originate from a single place: the country’s largest prison.
Information from Guatemala's Attorney General’s Office revealed that La Granja de Rehabilitación Cantel in Quetzaltenango is the origin of 47 percent of extortion calls in the country, Prensa Libre reported in late November, quoting anti-extortion prosecutor Antonio Díaz.
A number of raids have taken place throughout the year. In January, investigators turned up lists of phone numbers believed to be used to extort members of the public. A massive search of the Cantel prison facility in July 2019 involving over 1,400 police officers uncovered 200 phone chargers, although only 11 phones, and further seizures were seen in October.
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But in November, Guatemalan police spokesperson Pablo Castillo told the press that one individual prisoner, David Quinteros López, alias “El Tijerillas,” was found to be coordinating about 200 calls a day along with three other prisoners. Their modus operandi was to call transport companies and threaten to murder staff if they did not comply, according to Prensa Libre.
Castillo denounced López as a “copycat” extortionist, with little or no connection to real gangs, but who exploited the fear of extortion by gangs and made calls posing as members.
Copycat extortionists continue to plague the country's prison system. The Guatemalan police said 70 percent of all extortion calls in Guatemala come from prison, and that 80 percent of these are made from copycats, Prensa Libre reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
The frustration of Guatemalan authorities at being unable to rein in extortion practices by these copycats is shining through. David Boteo, head of Guatemala’s anti-gang police squad (DIPANDA), complained to the press that prison searches “are not part of our job, but we have to do it to reduce criminality.”
Given the scale of operations deployed in the Cantel prison this year alone, and the meager results shown, the police appear stumped about how to crack down on this criminal economy with a relatively low bar of entry.
The knowledge that the Cantel prison makes up half of all calls is also unlikely to make a difference, given how frequent raids appear to have failed to make a dent.
And despite the “widespread fear” of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 gangs allowing copycats to thrive, there is considerable disagreement about what importance they actually play in Guatemala’s extortion crisis.
Copycats have hit on a lucrative revenue stream, with one structure dismantled in August 2018 having extorted over $36,000 without being comprised of a single MS13 or Barrio 18 member. The total amount of copycats remains debated: in 2016 the Guatemalan government estimated 90 percent of extortion calls came from imitators, whilst certain think-tanks and experts say two-thirds of these calls are still dominated by gangs, a 2019 InSight Crime investigation found.
Various actions have been taken by authorities to try and combat this crime. Both the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the National Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) have created special sections to investigate copycats within their anti-extortion units. Furthermore, the Interior Ministry has tried to prevent prison calls since it acquired signal blockers in 2006.
Yet a combination of sabotage, a lack of electricity and topography has rendered the blockers ineffective, according to Prensa Libre. Additionally, the country’s prison system has been unable to prevent the entry of cell phones into prisons. Overcrowding also facilitates such crimes -- the Cantel prison holds 2,264 prisoners despite having the capacity for just 625 -- and prison staff who are strict could end up killed.