Can New Law Bring El Salvador Extortion Under Control?

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El Salvador has finally passed a much delayed anti-extortion law, but serious doubts remain over whether it will be enough to tackle one of the most widespread and damaging crimes in the country.

After significant political wrangling, El Salvador’s Congress approved a new anti-extortion law by a huge majority, with 78 out of 84 representatives voting in favor (see the full law here). 

The law establishes harsher penalties for extortion running up to 15 years, with even longer sentences for aggravated extortion, which includes extortion committed by gangs, public officials, from within prisons and using weapons, reported El Diario de Hoy.

The law also introduces a range of responsibilities for telecommunication companies in an attempt to tackle extortion from within prisons, which the government say accounts for 45 percent of extortion in El Salvador.

Companies will be prohibited from providing telecommunications services in areas near prisons, and are obliged to take the necessary technical measures to ensure they meet this requirement. They will also be required to suspend any phone line the Attorney General’s office says is being used for extortion.

In addition, under the terms of the reforms, police and prosecutors will no longer have to wait for a criminal complaint before they investigate extortion cases.

InSight Crime Analysis

Despite the large majority with which El Salvador’s new anti-extortion law passed, it remains a contentious piece of legislation. The law was criticized on many sides, with opposition politicians questioning whether it goes far enough or whether the government has the capacity to implement the reforms.

Nevertheless, it contains some interesting new instruments to tackle extortion, such as removing the need for a complaint to start an investigation. This move may help address the silence around extortion, a crime which is notoriously underreported due to victims’ fears of reprisals.

Perhaps the most ambitious section of the law has attracted the most concerns and will also likely be the most difficult to implement: telecommunication restrictions on prisons.

Placing a legal responsibility for enforcing this on private companies has generated concern in the sector. According to Contrapunto, industry representatives have shown opposition politicians that it is near impossible to completely block the cell phone signal at all times with the technology currently being used, and that inmates also use satellite phones to make calls, which cannot be blocked in the same way.

Similar reforms in Guatemala obliging companies to block signals have had limited success, with gang leaders reduced to attempting to coordinate extortion via handwritten notes, but only in the few prisons where the law has actually been enforced.

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