Extortion Explainer 3: The Modus Operandi

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A cheap phone and a few dollars’ worth of of prepaid credit serve as the rudimentary tools of extortionists in the Northern Triangle countries. Following are some of the most common schemes they employ.



Street gangs demand weekly, bi-weekly or monthly payments from businesses in territories under their control. Though these payments are generally small, the sums add up, with many owners ultimately closing shop or being killed when they can no longer afford to make the payments. In El Salvador alone, roughly 70 percent of all businesses pay some sort of extortion tax.


Opportunistic extortionists — individuals or groups acting independently of the gangs — gather intelligence on their intended victims to learn, for example, whether they receive remittance payments from family members abroad. The copycats then make threatening phone calls, requesting large, one-off payments. The modus operandi of these criminals is different from the street gangs in a key aspect: they do not make physical contact with their victims, whereas the street gangs will send members to make threats and receive payments.


Old, neglected and overcrowded prisons have spawned massive extortion rackets inside them. Gangs run cell blocks or even entire jails, and prisoners are forced to pay for basic needs, including sleeping spaces and food. Luxuries can also be had for a price: cell phones, televisions, drugs, and visits. In Hondurasdeplorable conditions, underfunding, and a lack of guards has led authorities to largely surrender control to so-called “inmate coordinators” who make sure that quotas are paid by all prisoners.  In El Salvador, imprisoned Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 gang leaders use the country’s prisons like their headquarters, coordinating full extortion rings with members on the outside.


Gang members will receive extortion payments in the form of produce and other goods. Some do so to feed their families. Other gang leaders have developed more sophisticated schemes, demanding that propane gas, bottled water, and food distributors provide them with product that they alone sell off in the territories under their control. In El Salvador, one food distributor was shaken down for $6,000 worth of products.

Loan sharking

While Panama and Costa Rica don’t face the same type of extortion threats as their more gang-ridden Northern Triangle neighbors, the two countries have seen a rise in small-time loan sharking as a consequence of being an international drug transshipment point. Money can easily be moved through schemes known as “gota a gota” (drop by drop), where borrowers are given cash at very high interest rates, and then threatened with violence when they can’t pay.

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