FBI to Train Anti-Extortion Unit in El Salvador

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The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) will help train a task force in El Salvador dedicated to investigating extortion-related crimes, with nearly 3,000 extortion cases reported in 2011.

The FBI’s Legal Attache in El Salvador, Joseph Deters, said that the US will support the training of the prosecutors and police who will make up the special task force. The unit will focus on the extortion of medium and small businesses, according to La Prensa Grafica.

Deters said that the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) and the National Civil Police (PNC) will select the members of the task force.

El Salvador already has an investigative unit dedicated exclusively to investigating extortion. Police Director Francisco Salinas said that the existing unit will probably be phased out and replaced with the new FBI-trained force.

InSight Crime Analysis

According to La Prensa Grafica, Salinas said that the current anti-extortion office had been “weakened” and that the government was seeking to strengthen it, but there was a chance that it could be shut down altogether. This looks like an admission that the office was ineffective.

The Attorney General’s Office processed 2,926 extortion cases between January and November 2011, about a 20 percent drop compared to the same period in 2010. But this may not indicate that extortion is going down, just that citizens are more reluctant to report it.

FBI agent Deters said that the new anti-extortion task force falls under the Partnership for Growth agreement that the US and El Salvador signed in November. El Salvador is just one of four countries to have signed such a Partnership Agreement — a five-year program which is supposed to help El Salvador overcome obstacles to its economic development, including crime and insecurity.

The agreement is one of several anti-crime initiatives that the US backs in El Salvador. Aside from Panama and Mexico City, El Salvador is the only country in Central America with a permanent FBI attache office. The FBI also backs a vetted police unit in El Salvador, the Transnational Anti-Gang unit. This history of cooperation means that the new anti-extortion task force is a logical progression for El Salvador’s law enforcement.

It is also encouraging that the new task force will reportedly focus on cases involving small rather than big business, as these are disproportionately affected by extortion demands. As in other countries in the hemisphere, Salvador’s bus companies are particular targets for extortion, forced to pay taxes to local gangs in order to operate certain routes. In the north of the country, the problem was so serious that bus drivers called a mass strike last year.

In order to be effective, the new task force will likely have to focus on El Salvador’s prison system. Most of the extortion rackets operated by Barrio-18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) are run from prison by gang members who have been locked up.

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