Independent Criminal Groups

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The variety of extortionists in Central America speaks to the ease with which opportunists can set up their own schemes. Independent actors have taken advantage of the low barriers entry to this criminal market.

Some small gangs have attained territorial control of a few blocks whose residents they extort, using the model pioneered by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18) – albeit on a smaller scale. In some parts of cities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, these independent gangs fight against the two dominant groups for control of territory and the extortion and micro-trafficking markets.  

Some of these criminal opportunists, ironically, got their start as community self-defense groups that were formed to counter extortion and fight the gangs. Some vigilante groups (such as Los Pumas in the city of La Ceiba, Honduras) turned criminal over time and eventually set up their own extortion system by taxing locals in the name of security. 

Other groups have mastered the basic modus operandi of making threatening phone calls and collecting the fees delivered via bank deposits, transfers and even cash. Given the Northern Triangle’s high overall levels of violence and the frequent killings of extortion victims who resist, individuals targeted by independent groups will tend to give in to whomever is threatening them.  

In Costa Rica and Panama, where street gangs have not yet embraced mass extortion, independent groups are responsible for loan sharking schemes. These groups often dabble in drug trafficking or maintain ties with drug trafficking organizations, using the proceeds of drug sales to finance the abusive loans.

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