Guatemala Citizens Fight Back Against Expanding Extortion Tactics

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Authorities in Guatemala have highlighted the range of tactics used by criminals to extort money from businesses, a crime that has become so devastating that locals in one city have organized to put a stop to it.

According to Guatemala’s Anti-Extortion Task Force, one new modus operandi of criminals dedicated to extortion is to demand a large initial sum of money from businesses and bus drivers as a start-up fee, and then require them to pay a smaller fee every week, reported Prensa Libre. This was the case with three recently captured suspects, who had reportedly demanded $640 from local business owners and informed them they would have to pay around $130 a week after that.

Additionally, criminals often demand “bonus” payments on holidays and following mid-year company bonuses and require a monthly payment from bus drivers on top of weekly payments, reported Prensa Libre. 

The task force said criminals also often tried to pass themselves off as gang members, in order to scare victims into paying.

This bleeding of small businesses and the transport sector has led some locals to organize against extortion. In the southwestern city of Quetzaltenango — where transport sector extortion has become a particular problem — 300 families have hung signs promising to “lynch” anyone who attempts to extort them.

InSight Crime Analysis

Extortion is an immense problem afflicting the Northern Triangle region of Central America, which encompasses Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In Guatemala, the crime earns criminals about $61 million a year.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion

The effects range from businesses shutting down — with over 17,000 reportedly closed in Honduras in a year due to extortion and threats, and an average of two a week in El Salvador — to the forced displacement or murder of victims unable to pay the exorbitant fees. In all three countries, bus drivers have been particular targets of extortion-related violence.

The emergence of new modus operandi for collecting money and the wide range of existing tactics with which the crime is carried out serves to further highlight the severity of the problem, and sophistication of the groups behind it. 

While the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 street gangs take much of the blame for the crime, it is not surprising that smaller groups are using their names to invoke fear. This method has also been reported in Honduras, while in Guatemala authorities say that the maras are responsible for just 35 percent of extortion cases. 

Meanwhile, the news of locals resorting to popular justice follows an April report that noted a sharp increase in the monthly average of lynch mob attacks between 2004 and 2013 in Guatemala, indicating this is becoming an increasingly common response to the government’s failure to resolve its citizens’ plight.

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