Honduran authorities reduce extortion by blocking cell phone service at prisons

Prisoners are prohibited from having cell phones, but some incarcerated gang members have friends and relatives smuggle the devices to them in prison.
Julieta Pelcastre | 30 May 2014

Honduran security forces have made significant progress in the fight against extortion by blocking cell phone calls from prisons. Incarcerated gang leaders often use cell phones to give orders to their fellow gang members.

Prisoners are prohibited from having cell phones, but some incarcerated gang members have friends and relatives smuggle the devices to them in prison. They use the cell phones to call other gang members who are not incarcerated and direct them to commit crimes, including extortion.

Blocking cell phone calls from prisons is proving to be an effective tactic to protect the civilian population, President Juan Orlando Hernández said on May 5 in a report on his first 100 days in office, according to a statement from Office of the Presidency of the Republic.

Authorities have blocked cellular phone service at 24 prisons throughout the country, and security forces have captured 170 suspected extortionists, the president said. To further improve security, authorities plan on launching a “blacklist” system, disabling stolen cell phones so criminals cannot use them, the president said.

Though authorities have made good progress in improving public safety, security forces remain vigilant, Hernández said.

“We understand that the safety-related issues that have been resolved are not enough to restore peace and tranquility,” the president said.” “There is still more to do and we are working hard because it is not a fight that we will win overnight.”

A dramatic drop in extortions

The number of reported extortions throughout the country has dropped by 50 to 70 percent since authorities blocked cell phone service at prisons.

Before authorities blocked cell phone calls from prison, Honduran residents reported an average of 10 extortions a day. Since security forces blocked cell phone service at prisons, the National Anti-Extortion Force (FNA) has received three to five reports of extortions daily.

Blocking cell phone calls from prisons has had a dramatic impact on the number of extortions because most extortions – 80 percent – are ordered by incarcerated gang members, La Prensa reported. Before cell phone service at prisons was blocked, most extortions were ordered by gang members incarcerated at the prison in San Pedro Sula, according to the newspaper.

Many of the extortions are committed by the two major gangs in El Salvador: Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18. The two gangs engage in extortion and other criminal activities, such as drug trafficking, micro-trafficking, robbery, and homicide, said Migdonia Ayestas, Director of the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAHH).

Gang members often target workers in the transportation industry for extortion, forcing taxi and bus drivers and taxi dispatchers to pay a “war tax,” Ayestas said.

About 350 transportation workers in Honduras have been killed in recent years, according to La Prensa. About 80 percent of those killings were linked to extortion. Transportation workers in San Pedro Sula, the country’s industrial center, pay an estimated $27 million (USD) in extortion annually to gangs.

There are about 36,000 gang members in Honduras, according to studies by the Jose Simeon Cañas Central American University (UCA). Most of the gang members are between ages 11 and 18, and many of them operate in San Pedro Sula.

Gangs are responsible for much of the violence which placed San Pedro Sula at the top of the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice’s list of the 50 most violent cities in the world. The council is a community group based in Mexico.

Restoring public safety

The perception that a Honduran city is so violent “is unacceptable, and we are changing these things,” President Hernández told La Tribuna in an interview which was published in early May.

Honduran authorities are working hard to improve public safety and are making progress, Ayestas said.

“The authorities want results. Criminals are being investigated, arrested, and taken to court,” Ayestas said.

Security initiatives are bringing down the violence.

In 2012, Honduras averaged 21 killings a day. So far in 2014, the country is averaging 14 killings a year, a 33 percent decrease.

“Impunity no longer exists in this country. No more mourning, no more blood, no more displacement due to insecurity”, Hernández said during a May 8 ceremony at Campo Marte in Tegucigalpa to commemorate adding two more squadrons to Operation Morazán, a security initiative.

“The more we fight crime, the more criminals are going to attack, but we will not retreat a single inch,” Hernández added.

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