With Cell Phones Blocked, Guatemala Inmates Write Notes

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In response to blocked cell phone service, inmates in several Guatemalan prisons have begun using handwritten notes to demand extortion payments from businesses and transportation companies, a reflection of Guatemala’s growing extortion problem and how criminal networks adapt to attempts to mitigate their illicit activities.

Carlos Ruiz, the head of Guatemala’s Public Ministry, said they have recently begun detecting prisoners passing paper notes to family members and friends during prison and courtroom visits, reported Prensa Libre. The notes give orders and instructions to criminals not currently incarcerated on who to extort, kill, or attack.

The tactic is apparently being used by inmates in five of Guatemala’s 21 prisons where cell phone signals are partially jammed in order to prevent inmates from conducting criminal activity via phone.

While phone companies in Guatemala are legally bound to block unauthorized telecommunications from penal centers, Prensa Libre reports most prisons continue to have cell service and that, in 2014, 6,000 extortions originating from prisons were reported every month and 2,370 phones were confiscated from inmates.

The degree to which extortion is committed from prisons reflects a growing problem, with Guatemala’s Minister of Government, Mauricio Lopez Bonilla, saying extortion “is the most widespread crime in the country,” and that the crime has increased 21 percent over the past three years.

According to Prensa Libre, from January to September in 2014, an average of 17 attacks against buses — usually related to failure to pay extortion — were carried out every month. This past January, presumed extortionists committed 162 attacks against transportation companies, killing 74 people

InSight Crime Analysis

Extortion and criminal activity being conducted from prisons is not a new phenomenon in Guatemala. Prisoners have typically used cell phones to make payment and ransom demands, with Guatemalan inmates even going so far as to extort businesses in neighboring El Salvador.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

In recent years, however, Central American governments have taken steps to reduce such activitity by blocking cell service around prisons. This has required prisoners and criminals to adapt in order to continue generating extortion payments — a massive source of income for Guatemalan criminals.

Guatemala’s transportation sector is an especially favored target for extortion, meaning working as a bus driver in the country is extremely risky.

Unfortunately, it appears the problem is only getting worse, with extortion levels continuing to climb and officials unable to fully prevent inmates from continuing to engage in illicit activity. 

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