Salvadorans in US Face Gang Threats to Families

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El Salvador is expanding a pilot program to allow nationals in the US to report crimes that originate in their home country, which mostly involve attempts to extort money through threats to their relatives in Salvador.

Under the program, known as Denuncia Express (“Express Complaint”), Salvadorans will be able to talk confidentially to a police representative attached to a diplomatic mission about crimes originating in El Salvador. This representative reports back to police in the Central American country.

Denuncia Express began as a pilot project in the Washington, DC metropolitan area in late 2010, but is set to expand to Salvadorans living in the rest of the US.

As La Prensa Grafica reported, Francisco Altschul (pictured), El Salvador’s ambassador to the US, said the program had handled 181 cases, resulting in 38 arrest warrants and 31 arrests, with more cases in progress.

According to La Prensa Grafica’s report, a police official who serves as a link between the US and El Salvador’s authorities said in most cases received, victims in the US are extorted by groups in El Salvador, and threatened with harm to their family in the country if they do not pay.

InSight Crime Analysis

El Salvador’s street gangs — especially the two largest, the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18·– rely heavily on extortion, which is a vital source of income.

This is sometimes carried out across borders — Salvadoran criminals have been reported to call people in El Salvador, often from prison, threatening them or their families if they do not wire money to US-based gang members. In other cases, criminals have targeted Salvadorans with family members in the US, forcing them to ask their relatives to send funds. These cases are particularly difficult for authorities to crack, due to their transnational nature and the fact that US victims are often undocumented and so may be reluctant to report the crime.

It is possible that Salvador’s gangs are being squeezed at home, and finding it harder to extract money from Salvadorans. The country’s Attorney General’s Office investigated some 2,926 extortion cases between January and November 2011. This represented a 20 percent drop from the same period in 2010, although that may simply be a result of lower reporting by victims.

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