Investigation and Analysis of Organized Crime
Extorsion in 
Central America
THE GLOBAL INITIATIVE
AGAINST TRANSNATIONAL
ORGANIZED CRIME

Extortion Latest News

Petty extortion has plagued business in Mexico City for years, but the recent killing of a local community leader angry at authorities’ inaction underscores the growing brazenness of such criminal activity in the capital.

The recent arrest of an Argentine businessman, accused of financing the ELN in Colombia between 2011 and 2015, has brought the ongoing ties between criminal groups and companies into the spotlight.

The hijacking of 11 vehicles loaded with contraband by ex-FARC Mafia along the border with Ecuador has revealed a new form of criminal financing for the former guerrilla fighters and exposed the lack of effective state controls in the area.

Authorities in El Salvador are keen to expand a much-praised local policing model believed to have helped two rural communities tackle bloody gang control. But a visit to the areas revealed a murky combination of factors behind the security gains, including indications of vigilantism.

Mapping Extortion in the Northern Triangle

Datos reportados
Vacío
Bajo
Alto

The Northern Triangle

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Comparación
Pais
Tasa de extorsión
Homicidios
Honduras
75
5
El Salvador
75
5
Guatemala
75
5

Case Studies

Criminal Actors

Cities and Extortion

Extortion Stories

Extortion Explainers

northern triangle map

The Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are now home to some of the most sophisticated extortion schemes in Latin America. The birth of these extortion markets is intertwined with the beginnings of the region’s two most dangerous gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18).

monja blanca buses

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and 18th Street Gang’s (Barrio 18) primary criminal economy is extortion, or what they call rent. In the early 1990s, when the gangs first formed among Salvadoran deportees, gang members shook down shops or merchants for a “cora” — slang for the American quarter — at a time.

cellphone in hand picture

A cheap phone and a few dollars’ worth of prepaid credit serve as the rudimentary tools of extortionists in Northern Triangle countries. Here are some of the most common schemes at their disposal.

el salvador police man picture

Extortion spurs violence in Northern Triangle countries, which consistently have some of the highest murder rates in Latin America. But it is destructive in other insidious ways as well.

Extortion News

Copycat Extortionists: Guatemala’s Criminal Chancers

Widespread fear of street gangs in the Northern Triangle countries is being exploited by copycat groups who pose as gang members to extort victims. These criminal operators are now an important part of the criminal problem.

Honduras Private Sector and Anti-Extortion Police: An Unholy Alliance?

Honduras’ private sector, under the banner of regional chambers of commerce, joined forces with the country’s elite anti-extortion unit in what was a fruitful collaboration. But the collaboration between businessmen and state security forces does not bode well for the country’s anti-extortion efforts.

Panama’s Sex Workers Easy Prey for Extortionist Cops

In Panama, women in the sex trade are exposed to monetary and sexual extortion by corrupt police officers. But a new prosecution system has gone some way to reducing this abuse of power.

The MS13’s Vital Fuel: Extortion

El Salvador’s groundbreaking "Operación Jaque" (Operation Check) has provided a wealth of information on the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), revealing the gang’s financial inner workings, its money laundering mechanisms and details about its hierarchical structure.

Street Gangs

The notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18) are behind the majority of extortion rackets in the Northern Triangle. The development of their criminal structures over the years has gone hand-in-hand with the boom in extortion.

Corrupt State Actors

Although gangs dominate the extortion markets in Central America, corrupt state agents will collude with them and even run some of their own extortion schemes.

This page is the result of a joint investigation by InSight Crime and the Global Initiative on Organized Crime looking at the plague of extortion across Central America. This extensive research project charts the actors behind this varied criminal market and a range of responses by the authorities while presenting alternative thinking on how to face this threat.