El Salvador Police Launch Special Anti-Extortion Investigative Unit
By Dialogo August 01, 2013
El Salvador has unveiled a new special police force to tackle extortion, said Julio César Marroquín, head of the Central Investigation Division of El Salvador’s National Civil Police.
The unit, consisting of 1,200 police officers and 500 soldiers, will work undercover to gather intelligence and crack down on criminals as part of a larger government initiative, Marroquín told Diálogo on June 20. That initiative includes the creation of a new division within the Justice and Public Security Ministry to work specifically on fighting extortion.
“The most important feature of this new group is that it will require coordination, at a national level, from all units enabled to fight against extortion — whether it is intelligence gathering or assistance from our armed forces,” Marroquín said.
For years, El Salvador has ranked among the world’s most dangerous countries as measured by homicide rates — largely due to violence perpetrated by gangs or “maras” as they’re known in El Salvador. In March, the country’s two largest gangs — MS-13 and Barrio 18 — signed a truce. While government officials say violence has plummeted by nearly 50 percent, extortion remains a prevalent threat.
So far this year, 954 extortions have been reported in El Salvador; this translates to just over five incidents per day in a country of 6.3 million inhabitants. Authorities say extortion is the main source of income for gangs in this country.
New anti-extortion unit created
On June 14, President Mauricio Funes established the Anti-Extortion Subdivision. Four days later, the new agency conducted its first two operations in one of El Salvador’s largest prisons, Penal La Esperanza, where they seized 60 mobile phones, 51 SIM cards and other wireless gadgets from inmates. Most of the extortion threats are made by phone and coming from prison, Marroquín said.
“Inmates call certain numbers from their cells and threaten people that if they do not deliver a certain amount of money they, or one of their loves ones, will be hurt,” he explained. “Sometimes they threaten to hurt family members inside the same prison.”
Even worse, he said, corrupt prison guards give inmates mobile phones and SIM cards brought in by visitors. “It could also mean there is a type of relationship between the guards and the inmates in some prisons, where the guards could be supplying them with the illicit technology,” Marroquín added.
In a second operation that same day in downtown San Salvador, the new police force raided informal mobile phone operators and vendors. Five people were arrested and 100 mobile phone and accessories such as hands-free devices and SIM cards were confiscated.
Extortion has been a particular problem in Soyapango, a commercial district in eastern San Salvador.
Business owners have complained to local media that gangs are constantly demanding protection money. In one case in early May, a man was shot dead at the market. Police told reporters it was likely that gangs were looking to terrify merchants and set an example of what could happen if they didn’t pay up.
Extortions down by 8-12% this year
Before the formation of this new unit, the police tried to tackle the problem with smaller groups. Local anti-extortion teams, known in Spanish as Equipos Locales Anti-Extorsión, were scattered around the country, gathering information on such crimes. Under the new model, these teams have been reinforced with investigation and intelligence experts; soldiers will also be assigned to help out as necessary.
“Those who were already working on this will be enabled even further, as members of now bigger, better equipped teams include investigators, intelligence analysts and public security officers,” Marroquín said.
Authorities say extortions dropped by 8 to 12 percent in the first half of 2013, compared to the same period last year — but they expect this new police force to lower it even further. They add that a drop in extortion income should have no impact on last year’s gang truce.
In Mexico, violent crime dropped in the first four months of this year by 3.2 percent, though kidnapping rose by 21 percent and extortion by 13 percent compared to the same period in 2012, according to data from Mexico’s National Public Security System.
Mexico doesn’t have a specialized anti-extortion police unit, but El Salvador could serve as an example — as could similar units already operating in Honduras and Colombia.
Are specialized police units the answer?
There’s a possibility the Federal Police will take on fighting extortion as one of its main tasks,” said Elena Azaloa, an analyst at the Mexico City security think tank CIDE. “While it may be good to create specialized groups to tackle certain crimes, it’s important to remember that these generally encounter the same limitations that regular police already have.”
Azaloa added that while such anti-extortion units are useful, “what is necessary are sweeping reforms within the police force, because without them, specialized groups are doomed to fail due to the same deficiencies and constraints facing the police in general.”
Even within El Salvador, top security officials have expressed skepticism about merely using repressive tactics to fight extortion.
David Munguia, the country’s former minister of justice and security, told the online newspaper ElSalvador.com that extortion is not only a way of life for gang members, but also the only source of income for them and their families.
“The gangs have already said they are not going to stop extorting because they depend on that money to make a living, unless they are given a better choice, like a job; but we know that there is high unemployment here and this is the cost of it. We are fighting extortion by pure police repression, when in reality it also requires the cooperation of those being extorted — the victims — to have a proper investigation,” Munguia said.
But authorities are set on going after extorters, regardless of where criminals turn for income, as their priority to guarantee people’s rights and safety.
“As police officers we are working on fighting crime. It’s what the constitution demands of us and it’s why we exist,” Marroquín said. “In this case we are tackling the crime of extortion, but other police units are equally fighting to end robberies and human trafficking. Our job is to bring security to the people of El Salvador.”