In the early 1990s, when the gangs first formed among Salvadoran deportees, gang members shook down shops or merchants for a “cora” — slang for the American quarter — at a time. Such small time extortion, however, soon morphed into sophisticated rackets, where the gangs terrorize public transport, businesses, and in a few cases multinational companies keen to get their products into gang-controlled neighborhoods.
The chaotic, aged fleets of buses in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have long been a prime gang target. As far back as 2011, InSight Crime investigated how the poor regulation of some $35 million in government subsidies to bus companies in Guatemala — without which most people could not afford to ride the bus — led to gangs extorting these companies. It was believed that the “brochas,” or bus assistants, who often have ties to the gangs, tipped off gang leaders about the extra cash. When bus operators refused to pay, their drivers were threatened or murdered.
Between 2010 and 2017, attacks on public transport in Guatemala City have killed more than 2,000 people, including bus and taxi drivers, bus assistants, passengers, transportation service owners, among others. Such violence has led to drivers’ jobs being called the most dangerous in the world.
In El Salvador, public transportation companies have simply made extortion payments part of their formal accounting, deducting weekly payments from drivers’ salaries. An informant in a case also revealed how bus operators can turn into middlemen for the gang leaders who systematically extort other bus owners along other routes.
These extensive extortion rackets have led to in some cases to the gangs investing illicit profits in private, legitimate businesses, such as motels, car washes, used car lots, restaurants, and even buses. Although such money laundering schemes are not carried out by all cliques, the MS13 has increasingly fronted such businesses.
Florida International University professor José Miguel Cruz, who has researched the gangs, told InSight Crime that its uncommon for the gangs to leave behind their extortion rackets.
“My impression is that in the last 10-15 years, you have on and off these stories of some cliques not extorting the communities they control,” he said in a phone interview. “But I don’t think that’s across the board, I think that’s concentrated on some cliques…it depends on the clique, it depends on who’s the leader.”