The Guatemalan Public Ministry and the National Police say they have identified five major leaders of the Barrio 18 (M-18)  gang currently held at the maximum security prison, and who are responsible for extorting people throughout the country from their cells.

The announcement comes on the heels of accusations that one of the jailed leaders of the M-18 faction, known as “Little Sayco Criminal,” had planned and executed the bombing of a bus last month, which killed seven civilians.

The cases raise important questions about the security of Guatemala’s prisons and the control the state has over them. Guatemala, like some other countries in the region, has overpopulated its prisons with alleged gang members who use their existing infrastructure on the outside to continue committing criminal acts such as extortion, kidnappings and murder from the inside.

Such is the case with the the five jailed gang leaders identified by Guatemalan authorities this week. Jose Daniel Galindo Meda, alias ‘El Criminal,’ Erick Humberto Contreras, alias ‘El Abuelo,’ Aldo Dupie Ochoa Mejia, alias ‘El Lobo,’ Josue Alexander Hernandez Ruano, alias ‘El Esquini,’ and Rudy Francisco Alfaro Orozco, alias ‘El Smurf,’  are all allegedly members of the M-18 and are currently held at the maximum security prison known as the Fraijanes II, elPeriodico newspaper reported.

Authorities say they run extortion rings throughout the country. Part of these rings include extorting the public transit bus companies which are subject to so-called “circulation taxes” imposed by gang members. Since 2006, approximately 500 transit workers have been killed because the bus company owners did not pay the gangs, or because of the workers’ alleged involvement in the extortion schemes.

Last month’s bombing of a Guatemala City bus was a case in point. A jailed M-18 leader, identified as Gustavo Pirir, allegedly coordinated the attack using an accomplice, Sonia Veliz, on the outside. Veliz allegedly planted the bomb in the bus, while another gang member, Carlos Rodriguez, detonated it from prison with a cellular phone.

Guatemala is attempting to address these issues. Last month, the Guatemalan government announced a plan to construct a new maximum security prison with a $9 million donation from the government of Taiwan, El Diario reported. The new prison will hold up to 1000 high-risk prisoners and will include x-ray and other forms of advanced technology to interrupt cell phone communication.

Guatemala’s spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, Nery Morales, stated, “The Government of Guatemala, the prison system, and the Ministry of the Interior will only provide guidance related to the prison’s construction so as to ensure it complies with international standards.”

However, this may fall short of what’s needed. El Diario reported that only 60 detectives belong to the specialized police unit which addresses crimes committed by the 12,000  members of the M-18 and its rival Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) gangs.

Prison security across the region has become a major concern. In neighboring Honduras, prison officials stated that upwards of 50 per cent of all extortion committed in Tegucigalpa originate from one prison. El Salvador also suffers from weak prison security, as an increase in gang inmates transplants rival violence between the MS-13 and the M-18 from the streets to overcrowded prisons. Mexican officials also see frequent prisoner escapes.