(InfoSurHoy) Central American prison systems remain fertile ground for gangs to commit extortion. In October, El Salvador’s Anti-Extortion Division of the National Civil Police (PNC) intercepted a conference call among leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang held in the prison in Ciudad Barrios in the department of San Miguel, and gang leaders incarcerated in the U.S. state of California.

nvestigations have identified extortions carried out from inside prisons in Central America and Mexico. Above, members of the Barrio 18 gang are incarcerated in the prison of Izalco in the department of Sonsonate, El Salvador. (Francisco Campos for Infosurhoy.com)
nvestigations have identified extortions carried out from inside prisons in Central America and Mexico. Above, members of the Barrio 18 gang are incarcerated in the prison of Izalco in the department of Sonsonate, El Salvador. (Francisco Campos for Infosurhoy.com)

In the conversation, published by the Salvadoran daily El Diario de Hoy, Salvadoran gang members weighed the murder of an alleged member of the gang, decided to kill him and discussed a power struggle with their peers imprisoned in the United States.

Those involved in the conference call had made 10,645 calls in a month using several cellphones that had been smuggled into the prison, according to Minister of Justice and Public Security Ricardo Perdomo. Most of the calls were to extort money from Salvadorans. One inmate made 4,345 calls in October.

“Most were calls for extortion, and the victims cooperated with us to identify them. In many cases, the positive side is the PNC prevented victims from being affected economically,” Perdomo said. “We are in a determined struggle to eradicate [telephone] extortion.”

For its part, the PNC has opened 2,201 cases of extortion from January to Sept. 30. During the same period in 2012, 2,223 cases were opened.

The extortions’ scope is international.

In March 2013, Guatemalan and Salvadoran authorities began investigating a network of extortionists who operated from inside the high security prison in Escuintla, known as “Infiernito” (Little Hell) that’s southwest of Guatemala City.

Members of the Los Chapines gang used cellphones to extort not only in Guatemala but also at hotels in El Salvador.

Investigators traced the calls through which criminals demanded up to US$500,000 from managers and owners of the Sheraton and Hilton hotels in El Salvador.

In some cases, the victims sent up to US$5,000 via Western Union wires, leading to the identification of suspects and their extradition to El Salvador, where they will be tried for extortion.

On July 19, just 15 days after having taken over as director of the “Infiernito,” Sgt. Amílcar Corado González was killed in his car on the streets of Escuintla.

Initial investigations indicate Corado was killed in retaliation for the reforms he instituted in the prison, such as inmate censuses and the identification of prisoners by fingerprinting.

The General Subdirectorate for Criminal Investigations of the Guatemalan National Civil Police reported 9,957 crimes were planned from prisons in Guatemala between January 2008 and Oct. 13, 2013. Of the total, 9,547 were extortions, 407 were murders, and three were kidnappings.

According to the National Economic Research Center, 75% of extortions in Guatemala are ordered from inmates.

In Mexico, one of every two extortion crimes registered in the country comes from state prisons, according to Roberto Campa, the undersecretary of Prevention and Citizen Participation of the Interior Ministry.

According to the National Survey on Victimization and Perceptions of Public Safety 2012 from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, an estimated 4.4 million cases of extortion – reported and unreported – were committed nationwide in 2011.

The prison population’s growth has led to inmates’ being governed by a few inmates, not by prison officials, according to the “Prison in Mexico: For what?” study released in August by the México Evalúa Center for Public Policy Analysis.

“Extensive networks of corruption operate in the centers, which has caused prisoners to corrupt authorities and organize or direct organized crime from within the prison system,” the study stated.

In Mexico, there are 242,754 inmates, according to the Federal Prison System.

The response

To monitor communications from within Salvadoran prisons, the government has been installing telephone booths and cellphone jammers since September.

“These systems will be installed in all prisons throughout the country and prison employees will undergo confidence testing,” Perdomo said.

The Ministry of Justice and Public Security proposed in September to raise the sentences established by the Penal Code to those detained or convicted who using telecommunications devices to carry out extortion from inside prisons.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes confirmed on Oct.26 the PNC and the State Intelligence Agency will start special investigations on extortion crimes carried out via telephone, as well as efforts to confiscate the devices used to carry out the crime.

“What’s been done so far is not enough,” Funes said. “This is evident by the confiscations, and we are still finding cellphones and chips. [That means] that there is some level of cooperation with the guards.”

Meanwhile, a reform to the Mexican Federal Code of Criminal Procedures and Telecommunication laws went into effect in March 2012, regulating inmate communication to suppress extortion.

The law prohibits calls for criminal purposes and requires companies to collaborate with authorities in real time to locate and block calls that are received from lost or stolen cellphones.

The Superior Audit of the Federation of the Mexican House of Representatives reported in March that 357 (87.9%) of 406 state and municipal prisons and jails nationwide did not have equipment to inhibit communication signals. Only 15 federal prisons in the country are equipped to block cell phone signals.