Extortion has long been a favored tactic of drug gangs in Central America and Mexico, but evidence suggests that criminal organizations may be increasingly running these activities from inside the United States, potentially even targeting U.S. businesses and residents.
According to El Salvador’s Contrapunto, individuals associated with the Mara Salvatrucha street gang, known as MS-13, have been using U.S. banks to launder money gained from extortion since 2005. The publication claims that the incident is known to police as the “Western Union case,” owing to the fact that the Colorado-based financial services company is frequently used to divert these illicit funds.
According to police investigations, MS-13 members call up individuals — oftentimes from prison — in El Salvador, threatening to harm them or their families unless they pay a fee. After making this initial round of threats, the victim is then directed to wire money to bank accounts in the U.S., typically located in California, New York or the greater Washington, DC area, which have long been hotspots of MS-13 activity. Upon receiving the money, the gang members in the U.S. then send it back to El Salvador, where it is distributed to relatives and associates of the extortionists.
On July 25, a court in El Salvador sentenced sixteen gang members to prison in connection with this scheme, and another twelve individuals residing in the U.S. were sentenced in absentia. Authorities believe two others are hiding out in Honduras, and eight more suspects reside in the U.S. but have not been identified by authorities.
Contrapunto also cites another case, in which gang members identify Salvadorans with family members in the U.S. and force them to ask their relatives to send money to them via remittance agencies.
Such cases poses a challenge to authorities for a number of reasons. Due to the transnational structure of these activities, and the fact that some individuals send the money through illegal remittance agencies, tracing extortion operations is a monumental task. The nature of immigration in the U.S. is another limiting factor. Because some of the victims may be undocumented immigrants, they may be reluctant to come forward to police for fear of being deported. In effect, this factor makes them perfect targets for criminal groups, who can carry out their operations with barely any fear of punishment.
But Central American gangs are not the only criminal groups targeting individuals for extortion. As a recently-leaked FBI memo from late 2008 notes, Mexican drug cartel the Zetas have deepened their extortion operations “into midwestern and southeastern United States, specifically Tennessee and Oklahoma.” According to the report, the cartel went after immigrants who allegedly owed money to Zetas leaders, as well as those believed to be working with their competitors.
Alarmingly, the immigrant community in the U.S. is not the only target of drug cartels. As the Associated Press reported in 2009, American businesses along the U.S.-Mexico border have experienced extortion threats in recent years as well. In a period of just one week in October, two businesses in El Paso told police that they had received threatening phone calls from a man who claimed to be a Zetas commander. While such incidents are rare, they illustrate the growing potential for racketeering rings to cross the border. With Mexican cartels reportedly operating in more than 230 cities across the U.S., the “spill-over effect” that pundits repeatedly warn of looks increasingly real.