A report into extortion in the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — has shed light on how incarceration policies are likely to worsen extortion problems in the region.

The extortion industry in the Northern Triangle is now worth at least $1.1 billion annually, according to Global Financial Integrity’s Extortion in the Northern Triangle of Central America: Following the Money report which was released in September. 

The region is in the midst of an extortion crisis, which is overwhelmingly carried out by the region’s major criminal gangs, which include the MS13 and Barrio 18. In Guatemala, over 100,000 extortion complaints have been registered in 11 years, with figures showing an increase over time. In Honduras, the transport sector is besieged by threats of extortion that have turned deadly, with at least 40 transport workers killed in 2022. And in El Salvador, where prison gangs are responsible for the large majority of extortion activity, prison populations continue to swell as President Nayib Bukele continues his mano dura (iron fist) policy.

“Extortion causes significant harm to individuals, communities, and businesses by damaging social networks, limiting economic growth, undermining faith in institutions, and causing displacement,” wrote Global Financial Integrity’s president and CEO, Tom Cardamone.

Here, InSight Crime offers three takeaways from the report.

Prisons Continue to See Problem Worsen

The Northern Triangle’s extortion problem is a result of the region’s gangs that have their roots in deportations from the United States in the 1990s and 2000s. This, and mass incarceration policies, have led to the situation the countries face today, according to the report.

Gangs such as MS13 adopted extortion on a large scale as a reliable source of income when their leaders were imprisoned. The overcrowded, largely unsupervised, nature of these prisons has allowed them to become criminal headquarters where extortion networks have thrived.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala’s Anti-Extortion Plan: A Legacy of Unkept Promises

Prisons are now fundamental to extortion operations. The tripling of Guatemala’s prison population between 2000 and 2014 has led to nine out of every ten extortion attempts being linked to prisons as of 2020. Sweeping arrests in El Salvador, which have seen more than 50,000 imprisoned since late March, could see extortion trends continue to rise.

Large-scale telephone extortion operations are conducted from within prison walls. In 2019, it was reported that almost half of the extortion calls in Guatemala were coming from one prison. According to experts interviewed for the report, government officials and private sector companies have the ability to block calls from inside prisons but are not doing so. In 2018, groups in two prisons there were also found to have been using illegal internet connections to conduct extortion.

Prison extortion is a reinforcing cycle, the report found. Extortionists themselves become victims of extortion within prison as they are forced to pay to avoid beatings or to access drinking water. These victims turn to extortion work as a way of getting the funds they need.

And extortion also reinforces migration patterns in the region. Having been originally spurred on by deportations from the US, the subsequent growth of extortion in the Northern Triangle may lead to an exodus of victims. Nearly a quarter of Salvadorans who are considering migration have been victims of extortion, while only 11 percent of those who are not considering leaving have been extorted, said the report.

State Involvement

In the Northern Triangle, corrupt government officials routinely use their positions of power for personal gain leading to “a blurred line between state corruption, state capture, and extortion,” the report stated.

The examples are many. In Guatemala, the reappointment of Attorney General Consuelo Porras in May was roundly criticized following a first term in which she took a series of decisions that actively weakened the country’s ability to fight corruption. Last year, El Salvador’s decision to end an anti-graft committee backed by the Organization of American States reduced international transparency, while Honduras’ former president, Juan Orlando Hernández, is facing drug trafficking charges in the United States.

Events such as these lead to the widespread extortion outlined in the report, such as immigration officials who extort migrants and threaten them with violence.

This environment of corruption also jeopardizes the effectiveness of anti-extortion measures already in place. In Honduras, bank officials supposed to register suspicious transactions to the country’s Financial Intelligence Unit do not do so for fear of reprisal. In Guatemala, one official reported receiving a threatening message from the Attorney General’s office asking why they were “denouncing” a politically exposed person.

Widespread Yet Underreported

Extortion affects a wide range of individuals, often those in poverty. Almost 15 percent of Guatemalan households earning less than $65 a month reported being extorted in the past year.

SEE ALSO: Extortion Explainer 1: Evolution of Extortion in the Northern Triangle

Despite the crime’s prevalence, victims are reluctant to report it. In Guatemala, only 35 percent of victims report these crimes. The relationship between those who extort and the authorities means victims typically have less trust in security forces. Some of those who do report being targeted by gangs find that gang members are directly informed of the complaints made against them.

Extortion is so common that some victims view it as an inevitable expense and differentiate between what they call rent (rent), which are regular payments to criminal groups, and extortion, which is an additional payment on top of these. These multiple forced payments are often in areas where gangs are vying for control — transportation companies in San Pedro Sula, Honduras reportedly paying up to five different criminal groups at the same time. Naturally, this leads to the shuttering of businesses such as Transporte Flores in Honduras, which chose to close their business altogether due to extortion threats.

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