Guatemala Prisoner Details Operations of Extortion Ring

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A prisoner in Guatemala has testified in court about his participation in an extortion ring run from inside the prison via cell phone, providing a glimpse into a common phenomenon in Latin American prisons.

The prisoner, who is incarcerated in the Infiernito maximum security prison in Escuintla, to the southwest of Guatemala City, said he joined an extortion network run by a fellow prisoner serving a sentence for leading a kidnapping gang, reported Prensa Libre.

The prisoner, whose name was kept confidential, said he joined the operation after was told he had to pay a sum of about $1,270 to avoid problems, and that if he did not have the money, there was another way for him to get it. He said he was given a list of 500 names per week, but “we only called 10, and from those we got two who turned over the money.”

The network, made up of 21 prisoners, made phone calls to the exterior, not just within Guatemala but also in neighboring El Salvador, where the prisoner said he once got a victim to pay a $12,000 extortion fee. According to the prisoner, he made over $6,000 even in a “bad week.”

Members on the outside were responsible for collecting the money and putting it into bank accounts set up by other collaborators. The prisoner said the gang did not order hits on those who refused to pay; however, prosecutors are investigating a series of crimes committed outside the prison that may be linked to the gang.

InSight Crime Analysis

Extortion is a principal source of income for gangs throughout the Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador –, where members of the public transport sector are frequently targeted, as well as small businesses and neighborhood residents.

In all of these countries, extortion run by imprisoned gang members has been reported to take place, with nearly 50 percent of extortions in Tegucigalpa, Honduras thought to originate from one prison. In March 2012, Guatemalan authorities began investigating an extortion ring run from the Infiernito prison that demanded up to $500,000 from Salvadoran businesses.

Gang members in Infiernito made an apparent show of their power in July 2012, when a new prison director was murdered after implementing a series of disciplinary reforms. President Otto Perez said jailed gang members were to blame.

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