Guatemala prison inmates have been accused of making threatening phone calls to large hotel chains in neighboring El Salvador, pointing to the growing popularity of long-distance extortion schemes.
Prosecutors from Guatemala and El Salvador are investigating an alleged extortion ring that was run from a maximum security prison (pictured) in Escuintla department, southern Guatemala. The gang reportedly targeted large businesses in neighboring El Salvador, among them the Sheraton and Hilton hotels, reports Prensa Libre.
According to the prosecutors handling the case, hotel owners and managers received threatening calls demanding up to $500,000 in payments. In some cases, after receiving the threats the victims transferred payments of $2,000 to $5,000 via Western Union.
Investigations managed to trace the origin of most of the phone calls back to the Infiernito maximum security prison in Escuintla. Other calls were traced back to the Guatemalan city of Jalapa.
Eight people have been arrested and sent to El Salvador where they will be tried for extortion. Prosecutors say they are currently investigating an additional 15 complaints. According to Prensa Libre, the group behind the long distance calls is known as the "Chapin" prison gang. They may have also tried to extort victims in Honduras.
InSight Crime Analysis
Extortion by cell phone is an attractive and relatively low-risk option for criminals. Callers can make threats sound convincing by exploiting information about the victim's personal life easily obtained from social networking websites, such as the names of their children or the vehicle that they drive. Callers may also claim to be affiliated to large criminal organizations like the Zetas, in order to amplify their threats.
The Guatemala case indicates that more groups are willing to place calls outside their native country. Guatemala has also reported receiving extortion threats from callers in Mexico, who have identified themselves as the Zetas.
Such extortion rings are typically run from inside prison, as seems to be the case with the so-called Chapin group. If they were able to successfully extort thousands of dollars from large companies across the border in El Salvador -- who presumably believed the gang would make good on their threats -- it points to just how easy it is for prison gangs to profit from these extortion schemes, often with little more than a phone number.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently announced that it would help train a new anti-extortion unit in El Salvador, where nearly 3,000 extortion cases were reported last year.