The Barrio 18 gang in El Salvador allegedly engaged in large-scale extortion of a community water management project, underscoring flaws in the government's claims that security is improving across the country.
Members of the Barrio 18 gang allegedly extorted $5,000 dollars per month from a community water management project in the town of San Pedro Perulapán, in El Salvador's central department of Cuscatlán, reported La Prensa Gráfica.
Sources who spoke with La Prensa Gráfica on condition of anonymity said the scheme was run by Rudy Eleazar Rodríguez, alias "Concha," the alleged leader of the Barrio 18 group that controls the area.
Instead of reporting the threats, the community decided to obey the gang's orders, and the project's service fees were raised from $6 to $9 per month.
"Denouncing [these extortions] is like asking to be killed," a local told La Prensa Gráfica.
Indeed, in November 2016 and April 2017, two men whom authorities believed were late on making extortion payments were assassinated, allegedly at Concha's instruction.
InSight Crime Analysis
The extortion scheme set up by the Barrio 18 in San Pedro Perulapán suggests that gangs in El Salvador continue to wield significant control in many areas of the country, despite a heavy-handed, years-long campaign aimed at wiping out these criminal groups.
The fact that the Barrio 18 was able to extort several thousand dollars per month from a community project underscores the group's territorial strength, and the community's decision to pay the gang instead of denouncing its threats also highlights a serious lack of confidence in law enforcement institutions.
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El Salvador's murder rate has indeed been declining, a trend that the administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has linked to the implementation of "extraordinary measures" designed to disrupt gang operations both within the country's prisons and on the street. However, there may be an alternative explanation for the drop in homicides; gang leaders have attributed the decline to an order given to their rank-and-file to stop killings towards the end of March 2016.
There have been other worrying signs of the gangs' continued strength in the face of the long-running crackdown, including a recent spate of apparently coordinated assassinations targeting family members of El Salvador's security forces. The revelation of the extortion scheme in Perulapán serves as another sign that the government's pronouncements about improving security should be viewed with some skepticism.