Guatemala’s National Civil Police dismantles extortion gangs

By Dialogo
September 22, 2014

A special unit of the Guatemalan National Civil Police (PNC) is achieving dramatic success in the battle against organized crime groups that engage in extortion.
Since its creation in 2012, members of the Task Force Against Extortion (FTE) have arrested almost 1,000 suspects and broken up 69 criminal gangs that extorted tens of millions of dollars a year from cab drivers, bus operators, store owners and private citizens, according to statistics compiled by the Guatemala Interior Ministry and police.
In 2011, the year before the FTE was created, only five criminal extortion gangs were disbanded, according to the website Siglo21, citing government sources. Through the efforts of the FTE that number rose in 2012 to 25 disbanded extortion gangs, and in 2013 another 29 extortion rings were broken up. In the first six months of 2014, another 15 gangs were broken up.
The National Civil Police (PNC) has about 30,000 agents. To battle extortion gangs, the government created the FTE in 2012. The FTE includes PNC agents, some members of the Armed Forces, analysts, psychologists, criminologists, and intelligence officers.
FTE agents work with local security forces in places most affected by extortion, including Guatemala City, Mixco and Villa Nueva.
Extortion and related crimes cost Guatemalan businesses and individuals about $61 million (USD) a year, according to estimates by the government.
Street gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13) and Barrio 18 (also known as M-18) are among the criminal groups that engage in extortion, according to the Interior Ministry.
Extortion gangs threaten victims with death, bodily harm or destruction of their businesses if they don’t pay up. Gang members sometimes collect extortion payments in cash directly from their victims.
In other cases, gang members do not confront their victims in person. Instead, they call their victims and instruct them to make payments into a bank account.

Criminals target public transportation workers

Extortionists often target public transportation workers, such as taxi drivers and bus operators.
As many as 500 taxi drivers per day pay an average of $12 (USD) in extortion payments, according to estimates by the Guatemalan government. Owners and operators of as many as 1,000 buses are forced to pay about $60 a day per vehicle.
In all, extortion robs the Guatemalan public transportation sector of about $25 million per year.
Extortion gang members take another $23 million (USD) each year from private business owners. Gang members also collect about $2.3 million (USD) annually from private families.
Extortionists also take in about $4 million (USD) from “express kidnappings,” in which gang members take victims hostage until their relatives, friends, or employers pay a ransom in exchange for their release.
About 35 percent of extortion crimes in Guatemala are committed by members of organized street gangs, such as Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.
Most of the rest of the crimes are committed by independent criminal elements.
Some independent criminals pose as members of Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 to seem more dangerous and intimidating, according to reports in La Noticia and other publications.
Genuine members of Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 force some of these independent extortionists to pay a portion of their criminal proceeds to the larger gangs.

The FTE arrests extortion suspects

Extortion group members vary widely in age and gender. In the first ten months of 2013, for example, security forces with the FTE arrested 300 men, 180 women and 90 children believed to have been part of extortion rings.
Gang members sometimes use women and children to deliver extortion threats or to collect extortion payments. Gang members threaten some women and children with violence if they do not deliver the threats or collect the funds.
Adult extortionists face penalties of six to 12 years in prison. About 95 percent of the extortion suspects arrested by Guatemalan authorities are convicted in court.
Criminal gangs began engaging in extortion in large numbers in the 1990s, according to a report in Agencia de Guatemala Noticias
Some of the extortion gangs have been organized by inmates who are incarcerated. Cellphones are prohibited in prisons and jails, but some inmates use illegal cellphones to direct their criminal groups who are not incarcerated.
For example, April 2014 the FTE arrested eight alleged members of an extortion gang headed by Rigoberto Morales Barrientos, also known as Rigorrico, an imprisoned kidnapper who is sometimes called the “Father of the Extortionists.” Since those arrests, security forces have captured another 40 members of Rigorrico’s alleged extortion ring.
In addition to investigating and arresting extortionists, members of the FTE also conduct training programs with business owners and other potential victims on how to handle extortion attempts. Potential victims are encouraged to work with police and the FTE to help bring the extortionists to justice.

A positive impact

The efforts of the FTE, prosecutors, and other security forces have had a positive impact in reducing extortion in Guatemala, said Carlos Mendoza, a security analyst with Central American Business Intelligence (CABI), a consulting firm based in Guatemala.
“The last two years have reflected an improvement compared to the previous two years, that coincides with efforts by the National Civil Police and prosecutors to target the crime of extortion,” Mendoza said. “Security forces have been dedicated specifically to dismantle extortion gangs.”

Julieta Pelcastre contributed to this report.

Cell phones should be prohibited in jails in Guatemala , to avoid this, but make this condition stick for real.