At least 700 people have been killed in Guatemala so far this year for failing to pay extortion fees, according to a local watchdog group, a number that underscores the enormous scale and impact of the crime.
Figures compiled by the human rights organization Mutual Support Group (GAM) say an estimated 700 people were killed by extortion groups between January 1 and July 31 this year, reported Spanish newspaper El Pais. GAM Director Mario Polanco stated that criminals executed people who refused to accept a cell phone -- which extortion groups use to give instructions to their victims -- or who failed to make a payment, which could range anywhere from $25 to $1,290 a week, reported El Mundo.
GAM has also compiled a list of the most dangerous jobs in Guatemala based on the professions of homicide victims, which is topped by business owners, small farmers and motorcycle-taxi drivers. (See graphic below) Polanco told El Pais that those involved in these professions were particularly vulnerable to extortion because they tended to deal in cash.
InSight Crime Analysis
Although widespread extortion in Guatemala has been well documented, GAM's figures highlight the deadly impact of the crime. According to official statistics, Guatemala registered 2,343 homicides between January and May 2014, meaning that with an average of 100 extortion-related homicides per month during the first seven months of the year, these deaths represented over 20 percent of monthly murders.
Extortion also has an enormous financial impact. According to figures compiled by Guatemala's Interior Ministry, criminals make an estimated $61 million a year from extortion, with the public transport sector and small businesses the most heavily hit. A range of groups profit from the crime. The country's powerful street gangs are thought responsible for an estimated 35 percent of cases, while the other 65 percent are reportedly carried out by other criminal actors, some of whom pose as "maras" to intimidate victims.
It is difficult to determine the true scale of the problem, because victims often fail to report extortion for fear of retribution and a lack of trust in law enforcement officials. Just last week, three Guatemalan national police officers were arrested for extorting undocumented migrants.
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The problem is by no means limited to Guatemala -- in neighboring Honduras and El Salvador, extortion is also widespread, and taxi drivers and small business owners are particular targets.
Guatemala has taken some measures to address gang extortion and murder, including the creation of a special anti-extortion unit and, most recently, taking 95 Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) members to trial for 35 homicides and extortion. The GAM report shows that despite these moves, extortion continue to greatly impact the daily lives of Guatemala's citizens.