Extortionists burn buses to intimidate victims

Statistics suggest that the Northern Triangle -- El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras -- constitutes the world's epicenter for extortion, illustrating the importance of street gangs and the extent this crime has taken root.

The statistics, compiled by La Prensa in Honduras, show that Salvadorans pay an estimated $400 million annually in extortion fees, followed by Hondurans, who pay an estimated $200 million, and Guatemalans, who pay an estimated $61 million. These figures may be higher given that extortion is one of the most underreported crimes. 

Public transportation is one of the most affected sectors, with buses and taxis annually paying an estimated $25 million in Honduras and $34 million in El Salvador, La Prensa said.

Small businesses are also hard hit. El Salvador’s small business association (CONAPES) estimated the economic sector it represents pays $30 million monthly to criminal organizations in extortion payments.

Poor neighborhoods in urban areas are particularly vulnerable, the newspaper noted. (See maps of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula below, which show where the newspaper says the transport sector is extorted)

According to La Prensa, extortionists employ similar strategies across the three countries, intimidating victims through death threats, burning or destroying the property of those who do not pay, or killing an employee or a relative of the owner of the business.

Over 300 workers in the Honduran transportation sector have been killed in the last four years, and more than 36 Salvadoran transportation workers have been killed in 2015 alone. Being a bus driver in Guatemala has also become an extremely dangerous professional occupation with hundreds being killed in the last decade.

Extortion in Honduran Cities

InSight Crime Analysis

What makes the Northern Triangle an extortion epicenter can be described in one word: gangs. In the last two decades, powerful local and regional street gangs have spread throughout the region. Most of them target small businesses and public transportation cooperatives for extortion

Honduran gangs, for instance, earn an estimated $54 million annually by charging a "war tax," the newspaper said. 

Jailing gang members en masse, the preferred approach of Northern Triangle governments to deal with gangs, has not slowed the rates of extortion. Many extortionists in the Northern Triangle simply operate from prison via cell phone.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion

Nonetheless, extortion is not unique to the Northern Triangle countries. On June 30, Colombian authorities arrested 27 members of an extortion ring, three of whom were conducting extortions from behind prison bars.

What's more, gangs are not the only groups extorting. As noted, Hondurans pay an estimated $200 million per year in extortion, only $54 million of which is going to the gangs. But authorities say other groups and individuals use the specter of gangs to scare people into paying extortion fees.