El Salvador Inmates Using WhatsApp for Extortion: Official

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Inmates in El Salvador are reportedly conducting extortion operations via smartphones despite new measures to curb the criminal activity, showcasing how criminals continue to find new ways to skirt government regulations within the prisons. 

El Salvador’s Director of Prisons, Rodil Hernández, stated in a local radio interview that prisoners are coordinating criminal operations by using the WhatsApp messaging service. The new tactic is in response to the government’s “extraordinary measures” that were recently implemented in six of the country’s prisons. These measures are intended to cut down on extortion operations occurring from within the prison walls, in part by jamming cell phone signals in the prisons. 

Hernández did not offer details on how the inmates were accessing Wi-Fi networks from within the prisons. But he explained that in the past, family members of inmates have moved close to the prisons to provide their relatives with internet signals, according to El Diario de Hoy. Authorities have raided these homes since the extraordinary measures were established, but the inmates continue to have internet access. 

Hernández added that inmates may be using their lawyers to relay messages to their criminal associates on out the outside.

InSight Crime Analysis

The admission by El Salvador’s police director reveals how inmates keep finding ways to foil the government’s repeated attempts to crack down on criminal operations within the prisons.

In December of last year, the government tried to limit illicit cash flows into the prisons with a debit-based “zero cash” system. But by January, authorities had seized some $11,000 in cash, in addition to 300 cell phones and 700 sim cards. Past attempts to cut cell phone signals within the prisons have also proven difficult to implement

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion

It’s not just the inmates that are actively subverting the government’s attempts to reduce crime within the prisons. Last month, several police officers were arrested for smuggling cellphones and other illicit materials to incarcerated members of the Barrio 18 gang. It would not be surprising if something similar is occurring now, considering inmates need electronic devices to use WhatsApp.

At the center of this issue are the country’s powerful street gangs, including the two most prominent, the MS13 and Barrio 18. According to a new report, gangs are responsible for 76 percent of all extortion in El Salvador, and many of those operations are believed to originate from within the prison facilities. 

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