El Salvador to Deploy Anti-Terrorism Squad to Fight Bus Extortion

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El Salvador’s elite anti-terrorism unit will join police in patrolling the bus routes most vulnerable to extortion by criminal gangs, but the security plan is expensive, and the transporation system will remain vulnerable as long as transactions remain cash-based.

Police director General Francisco Salinas said that the anti-terrorism unit, known as CEAT, will be working with other elite police squads, as well as El Salvador’s recently created anti-gang police unit.

In reality, as La Prensa Grafica reports, the anti-terrorism squad was first deployed nine months ago to monitor bus assaults and extortion attempts in the crime-ridden municipality of Soyapango, just outside the country’s capital, San Salvador. Now, authorities are drawing from that experience to expand the program to the capital where police, members of the armed forces, and elite units like the CEAT will be divided up into teams of six people and deployed throughout the city to monitor bus routes. There will be 132 teams in total, La Prensa Grafica says. Each one will include three undercover members of the elite forces, and three police agents in uniform.

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The undercover plan might be part of the problem. The security forces have reportedly budgeted $4 per day per agent, so that they can pay for bus fare. This amounts to $15,840 a month in transport costs alone, and $190,080 per year, according to La Prensa Grafica’s calculations. But these numbers show why El Salvador’s transport system is so vulnerable to extortion by criminal gangs in the first place. With so many passengers paying in cash, the city transportation system is an efficient and easy source of funds for local street gangs.

For its part, Guatemala has tried to tackle the problem of bus extortion by installing a digital payment system on a new city bus line in Guatemala City, the Transmetro. Creating a cashless city bus system is the best way to cut down on extortion and violence against bus drivers and transport companies. The challenge will be enforcing such a system across a city and making it affordable for passengers.

The deployment of the CEAT and other elite police teams will likely still bring some results. El Salvador police teams have already proven that they are willing to step in if they are witness to an assault, and their mere presence could act as a deterrent to some criminal groups.

More promisingly still, the Attorney General’s Office has made progress in building cases against bus extortion rings, reportedly using evidence collected from the government’s new phone tapping center inaugurated this year. Public Security Minister David Munguia Payes has also suggested creating a special anti-extortion security unit that specializes in crime involving public transportation.

Overall, police say that reports of extortion are also going down, as 1,866 people have registered formal complaints so far this year, a drop of 11 percent compared to the same time period in 2011. These numbers are not entirely reliable as many extortion attempts go unreported.

Still, if Munguia can present positive results by the end of the year showing that extortion of transportation has also dropped, it will add to what has largely been a positive year for El Salvador in terms of security results. January to August registered nearly 1,000 fewer murders than the same time period in 2011. That drop in violence is largely due to a gang truce brokered by the Church. By deploying El Salvador’s elite anti-police force in the fight against bus extortion, the government is arguably striving to show that the security forces can make tangible security gains outside of any inter-gang agreement.

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