Extortion is a particularly destructive crime because victims often have little recourse. Initial state responses have proven counterproductive, and more recent measures – though more efficient – are simply not enough to thwart it.
Repressive anti-gang measures grouped under mano dura, or “iron fist,” policies criminalized gang membership or perceived gang affiliation. Launched in the Northern Triangle countries in 2004, these operations successfully jailed many mara “soldiers” and leaders but failed on almost every other level.
The prisons were unprepared for the mass incarceration of gang members, and officials largely handed control of cell blocs or even the entire prisons to specific gangs. This allowed the gangs to strengthen into formalized structures, with leaders of various cliques convening to organize, strategize and plan their criminal activities.
With an increasing number of members in jail, the gangs required more income, as members needed money to pay for lawyers and feed their families. This led to systematic extortion rackets to collect more cash. Young, new gang members were tasked with receiving payments, while older gang leaders organized extortion rackets and kidnapping schemes from the jails that were under their near-total control. A Salvadoran prosecutor told InSight Crime in 2010 that 84 percent of extortion schemes were run from jails, from which gang members are provided security and easy access to smuggled cellphones.
The government’s countermeasures, including cell signal blockers around prisons, have so far largely failed to cut off extortion threats and schemes that originate from within prisons.
In the end, the mano dura policies and mass incarceration of gang members strengthened the street gangs and led to more sophisticated extortion rackets.
Faced with the evident failure of mano dura policies, regional governments have tested different measures to combat extortion.
Awareness and outreach campaigns were launched to tackle underreporting of extortion, one of the main challenges for authorities. But results of these campaigns have been limited at best. The vast majority of extortion victims are still too afraid to speak up, especially as gangs often pay off local police. In addition, reporting rarely helps the victim, who often will face a second extortionist from the same gang shortly after the first is arrested.
Although not specifically aimed at reducing extortion, violence and recruitment prevention programs in gang-controlled neighborhoods have tried to stop teenage boys from joining the gangs and perpetuating gang-related activities. But such efforts remain scarce and often lack funding from Northern Triangle governments.
In more recent years, authorities have attacked the gang phenomenon from a different angle – by going after the groups’ finances, the majority of which are the product of extortion. Investigations such as “Operación Jaque” (Operation Check) in El Salvador or “Operación Avalanche” (Operation Avalanche) in Honduras opened a promising new front against the gangs by dismantling their money laundering networks and seizing assets acquired with extortion profits. But the Jaque operation saw many of the suspects charged with money laundering crimes subsequently released from jail, raising the question as to whether financial investigations can seriously impede extortion.
Local governments have attempted to take on against gang extortion in the Northern Triangle. Some police forces have confronted the gangs aggressively. Other agencies have attempted to reach out to impoverished youths in tough neighborhoods. But all these efforts are limited by the constrained funds that Northern Triangle municipalities have at their disposal.
Some communities have tried reaching out to members to help them leave the gang. Evangelical church-based movements offer support to “retired” gang members. Adopting a religious lifestyle is one of the few ways a young person can leaving the gang without reprisal.
Civil society groups have pursued similar objectives but have focused on providing former gang members with employment.
The Private Sector
Some of the most promising community responses have emerged through private-sector initiatives.
El Salvador’s sugar cane industry has organized and pooled resources to support rural police in their anti-extortion efforts. Other industries have given gang members employment.
The desperation provoked by extortion has at times pushed entire communities to take up arms against the gangs. This response results from the limited options at victims’ disposal, and a widespread sense of impunity in the region that goes beyond the issue of extortion.
But this type of extrajudicial justice is short-term at best, and even when successful can spawn dangerous vigilante groups. Latin America is rife with experiences of self-defense groups that turned criminal, some of which went on to replace gang extortion with their own taxes in the form of “security contributions.”