Extortion, violence and organised crime in Latin America

According to a recent study[1], after homicide, extortion is the second most prolific crime committed against the rule of law in Latin American and Caribbean countries. As well as being the primary source of income for maras, youth gangs, and organised crime groups, the growing number of violent deaths arising from extortion means it has now become the most significant threat to personal safety.

An example: in El Salvador, 24% of the population claims to have been the victim of extortion at some point in their lives, and in Guatemala official allegations of extortion increased by 55% between 2013 and 2018.

In recent years, some countries have taken steps to tackle extortion, attempting to resolve the problem with tougher punishments, specialist prevention programmes, the use of specialist police forces and dedicated help-lines for victims. Another measure to have gained popularity is the blocking of mobile phone signals in prisons. This is because in some countries up to 70% of extortions are organised from behind prison walls.

Given that extortion has such a devastating effect on both the peaceful coexistence of a population and its economy, the study makes a series of recommendations for their prevention and control:

  • Push for police modernisation and incentivise the social rehabilitation of inmates. Streamline police and judiciary systems to ensure improved safety for citizens.
  • Encourage the development of joint public and private partnerships such as the one that exists between the sugar production industry and the El Salvador National Police. By doing this the police have been able to obtain transport and communications equipment.
  • Dedicate more resources to finding technical ways to control extortion. For example, Mexico has a mobile application that identifies calls placed from prisons.
  • Extend regional exchanges on good practice for extortion control to speed the sharing of programmes and solutions.
  • Consolidate control mechanisms for extortion cases involving civil servants. Especially in cases where civil servants demand money from citizens to carry out specific administrative proceedings.
  • Generate attractive professional alternatives for members of youth gangs. For example, community centres that organise activities aimed at preventing the recruitment of young people in high-risk neighbourhoods.
  • Provide incentives for small and medium businesses not to deal in cash. In Guatemala it has been found that most proceeds obtained from extortion are invested in businesses, buses, taxis, and bars.
  • Encourage the victims of extortion to undertake criminal procedures by providing them with all the necessary protection guarantees in order to increase the number of official complaints and convictions.

[1] A Criminal Culture: Extortion in Central America.



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