El Salvador’s Controversial Gang Crackdown Stamps Out Extortion

SAN SALVADOR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — For nearly 20 years, Antonio Ventura has been handing over $100 a month from the till of his small grocery store in El Salvador’s capital to gangsters in extortion payments. It was the only way to avoid death threats at gunpoint, or worse.

Living in a poor San Salvador neighborhood split between areas controlled by the powerful armed street gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and its rival Barrio 18, Ventura and other residents were at the mercy of the gangsters.

He even had to pay an extra $100 “Christmas bonus” for gangster parties, and donate money, food and plastic cups for the funerals of gang members.

“I had to pay up or if not they could make me disappear. It’s not that I wanted to pay, I just had to if I wanted to continue with my business,” Ventura, 49, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation inside his store, where steel mesh and bars protect the windows and doors.

Then, about a year ago, the gangsters stopped coming by and the extortion demands stopped.

El Salvador has been under a state of emergency for 17 months since President Nayib Bukele declared a “war on gangs” after the murder rate hit a record high in March 2022, when 62 murders were recorded in a single day across the Central American nation of 6.4 million people.

Since then about 72,000 alleged gang members have been arrested and a vast prison has been built to lock up 40,000 inmates, part of a sweeping crackdown that is popular despite growing evidence of human rights abuses by security forces.

Mass trials could take place later this year after lawmakers in July approved a law that will let prosecutors simultaneously try large groups of people alleged to be part of the same criminal group or from the same area.

Opposition politicians and rights groups say group trials risk depriving detainees of their right to due process and their individual presumption of innocence, but for people like Ventura such concerns are a price worth paying.

“The gangsters just stopped coming,” Ventura said. “I’ve been able to work in peace, thanks to God.”

“Now we can buy stock and give back something to our families,” he added.

Big business

Extortion rackets emerged early in the last decade and gradually became a key financing source for El Salvador’s gangs.

Extortion payments totaled $756 million in 2016, according to estimates by El Salvador’s central bank, pushing some Salvadorans to migrate, and their businesses to close.

Gangs have targeted both rich and poor business owners. From street vendors, beauty salon owners and market traders to wealthy ranchers and tycoons, few businesses have been exempt from the protection tax known as “la renta.”

Bus companies and drivers have been particularly hard-hit, with extortion payments reaching $12 million in 2021, according to the Federation of Transport Business Owners (FECOATRANS).

At first, bus drivers would be charged $1 to $5 every time they entered gang-controlled territory, and attacked if they did not pay. Then gangs extorted bus owners directly, sometimes leading to their bankruptcy, according to a 2021 report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Even schoolchildren were forced to pay up. Children working for gangs have been known to collect a daily “renta” of 10 to 25 cents from each of their classmates, according to the teacher’s union SIMEDUCO.

Peace at a price

Extortion rackets have not completely disappeared but many residents say gangs and their hitmen no longer roam the streets collecting payments.

By August of last year, the transportation minister estimated that bus companies had already saved about $50 million from not paying.

The shift has brought a newfound freedom to people living and working in neighborhoods where gang members once controlled the streets, imposing curfews and other restrictions.

Football matches are now played at dusk and families can spend time at the park or order fast food delivery, while businesses can distribute and sell their products in other neighborhoods — all unthinkable when the gangs reigned.

Ventura said a 17-year-old relative, who worked at his grocery store, was murdered by gangs about a decade ago. They kidnapped and tortured him before dumping his body beside a road, he said.

Once, the gangsters fined him $300 because people who were not from the neighborhood came to supply his store, he said.

Improved security has made Bukele’s hardline crackdown popular with many Salvadorans despite the concerns of rights abuses including arbitrary arrests.

A February survey by pollsters CID Gallup found that 92% of the population supports the state of emergency, which suspended some constitutional rights but has led to a marked fall in crime.

In 2022, homicides fell 57% to 495, down from 1,147 a year earlier, according to government figures.

Human rights groups say the campaign has led to the detention of many innocent people, particularly young men in poorer neighborhoods.

In September, the Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to several families who said their relatives had been arrested and wrongly accused of being gang members.

The emergency powers allow police to swiftly arrest and jail suspects while suspending their right to a lawyer and court approval of preliminary detention.

At the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in July, rights groups denounced the deaths of 174 people in state custody and more than 6,400 documented rights abuses, such as torture and arbitrary detentions during the state of emergency.

In June, the IACHR — the region’s main human rights body — reiterated its call for Salvadoran authorities “to ensure that all measures linked to its law enforcement and prisons policies respect human rights and human dignity.”

The government and attorney general’s office have denied rights violations.

But after years of living in terror, many Salvadorans support the security policy of Bukele, who enjoys high popularity ratings and plans to run for re-election next year.

In another part of the capital, street trader Victor Ramirez said Barrio 18 had all but disappeared from his area after controlling it for nearly two decades.

He recalled how he used to return home after a shift working on the production floor of a local newspaper to be greeted by gangsters on the street corner demanding a $5 entry fee.

If Ramirez wanted relatives and friends living in another neighborhood to visit, he had to ask the gangsters for permission or risk being killed, he said.

Today, he runs a fruit stall, is free to buy stock from whoever he wants and never has to hand over extortion money.

“Thanks to those who declared the state of emergency, they’ve taken all the people who were here. We live in peace,” said Ramirez.