Extortion Worse Since Salvadoran Gang Truce

Despite a truce between the country’s top gangs, extortion of small businesses in El Salvador is getting worse, causing an average of two closures each week as reported by InSight Crime last week. 

Of 11,730 businesses registered with the National Council for Small Businesses, about 70 percent have reported being extorted by gangs. Police investigators have said that only 10 percent of extortion victims actually filed reports, choosing silence out of fear of reprisals. For example, a business in Soyapango pays $27,000 a month to gangs and factors extortion into its budget.

The two street gangs behind the majority of the extortion, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 signed a nationwide truce more than a year ago. Homicide rates since have dropped 40 percent, but according to Salvadoran police, extortion has increased. Businessmen are not optimistic about improvement.

"The gangs have already said that they are not going to stop extorting, because that is how they make a living, at least until they have an alternative way of making money," said Justice and Security Minister, David Munguia Payes. As long as the country’s unemployment rate is high, extortion will not stop.

According to security advisers, children between 10 and 13 are often used as messengers, delivering threatening notes or cell phones that allow gang members to talk with employees. Police said gang members, mostly in prison, made an average of 75 calls a day to potential victims.

The government is a second factor along with extortion that has contributed to an increase in closures of small businesses, says Frederico Hernandez, the head of the Chamber of Commerce. He explained that when the government fails to pay contractors on time, they have trouble paying bills or staying afloat.

"Extortion is hijacking the tranquility of Salvadorans, extortion has taken our freedom. No one is free from extortion," said Rodrigo Avia, former police director.