The repeated appearance of “copycats” in Guatemala shows how criminals are taking advantage of the country’s widespread extortion and its near primal fear of street gangs.

Guatemala’s National Civil Police and Attorney General’s Office arrested 30 people on August 8 in an anti-extortion operation. Those detained are suspected of extorting five individuals, four transportation businesses and one businessman, according to a report from Nómada.

The arrests resulted from 36 raids in seven Guatemalan departments. Authorities said that the criminal group had been extorting its victims as far back as 2016, amassing more than 655,000 quetzales (approximately $87,400).

Attorney General’s Office investigators said the copycats called their victims and claimed they belonged to Guatemala’s feared street gangs. They then instructed their victims to deposit extortion payments into bank accounts.

Anti-extortion prosecutor Nelly Morataya said the groups behave differently than gangs: They obtain their victims’ phone numbers from telephone directories and often do not have physical contact with them, she explained.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

In some cases, the copycats claimed to be hitmen contracted to kill their victims and demanded money in exchange for sparing their lives.

InSight Crime Analysis

The inability of Guatemalan authorities to combat extortion has given third-party groups who sometimes operate as copycats an opportunity to play off their victims’ fear of the country’s gangs and other violent criminal networks to successfully extort them.

In recent years, the presence of such copycat extortion rings has grown in Guatemala, and with it reports of the crime. During the first half of 2018, reports of extortion grew 17 percent compared to the same period in 2017, according to data from the Guatemalan Center for National Economic Research (Centro de Investigaciones Económicas Nacionales de Guatemala – CIEN).

And according to the non-governmental organization Mutual Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo – GAM), which tracks extortion and other crimes, an average of 22 extortion complaints are registered daily. Many other cases go unreported.

Carmen Rosa de León Escribano, a researcher with the Learning Institute for Sustainable Development (Instituto de Enseñanza para el Desarrollo Sostenible – IEPADES), explained in a radio interview that 20 percent of extortion calls are made by gang members; the rest come from copycats, inmates or people close to the victims.

However, InSight Crime field research and interviews with experts suggest that estimates on the share of extortion calls from copycat groups varies enormously, from 25 percent to 90 percent.

Law enforcement officials interviewed also said that there is a significant difference between copycat groups and extortion schemes run by street gangs — copycat groups rarely come through on their threats to kill.

Francisco Cisneros, head of the homicides department of the Guatemalan police’s Special Division for Criminal Investigation (División Especializada en Investigación Criminal – DEIC), told InSight Crime: “Maybe one in every hundred cases [copycat groups will kill] but at the end of the day they don’t pose much risk.”

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