El Salvador Church a Target for Extortion: Archbishop

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Priests in El Salvador are reportedly being targeted by extortion rackets, revealing that gangs are diversifying one of their top sources of income to include civil society as well as the private sector.

Jose Luis Escobar, the archbishop of San Salvador, stated on September 16, that priests have been targeted by gangs running extortion rackets, reported La Prensa Grafica.

Though extortion demands do involve money, the archbishop said that “sometimes we have been extorted because we have food, and because we have resources that we use to help the poor.” So far, no church member had been hurt as a result of their refusal to comply with the demands.

Recent figures from El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC) show that there have been 2,041 extortion complaints registered so far this year, with 129 of those coming from small-to-medium sized businesses and 102 from transportation companies, a popular target among extortionists because of the amount of cash bus drivers have on hand each day.

The Catholic Church does not keep track of the amount of extortion threats it receives, Escobar said.

InSight Crime Analysis

The church, following its role in the negotiation of a truce between leaders of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 in March, has sought to extend the agreement to cover extortion as well as violence rates. They have failed to see any success in this however, likely because extortion constitutes one of the maras’ main sources of income.

While the number of reported extortion cases has been on the decline, — 2,926 cases were registered last year between January and November, a 20 percent drop on 2010 figures — the numbers are still alarmingly high. What’s more, the archbishop’s announcement indicates that gangs are diversifying to social sectors rather than focusing solely on businesses. Escobar noted however, that the fact that no church member had been harmed so far meant gangs still respect the institution.  

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has offered to train a new special task force in El Salvador, comprised of about 60 police and prosecutors, specifically to investigate extortion threats against smaller-sized businesses.

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