Extortion and Forced Displacement in Guatemala

Introduction

Inés1 In order to protect their identity and their security, the name used here is a pseudonym. used to work in a special unit of the Ministry of the Interior, in a small town in eastern  Guatemala. Like many of the government officials who I interviewed in this period (2011 and 2012), she always spoke favourably of her institution. When I asked her about the programmes that she was helping to implement, she assured me that they worked well and that local people saw them in a good light and supported them. And when I inquired about the involvement of the police, she asserted that she worked closely with their officers, and that the people trusted them and went to them for help with their problems.

Inés’ rhetoric was turned upside down in late 2011. I had arranged to meet with her and with several other key informants who I had met during my doctoral investigation, to discuss some of my main findings. Our latest meeting was not meant to be any different from the many others that we had had over the course of the previous weeks. This time, however, something had changed. The text message that she had sent me that morning was terse, and when I arrived at her office I found her evasive, fearful and distrusting. When I eventually I asked her about her strange demeanour, she confessed: someone had tried to extort money from her over the phone the day before; she didn’t know who it was, but she was suspicious of everyone (including me). By this point she had been in touch with an acquaintance of hers who worked in the army, who had promised to help her find out who was blackmailing her. When I asked her why she hadn’t called the police – an institution she had spoken so well of in the past – she answered that she didn’t want to contact them because she thought that one or more officers might themselves be involved. 

Inés’ story illustrates the impact that extortion can have on the psyche and the behaviour of the hundreds of citizens who are victims of this crime in Guatemala every year. The word extortion, derived from the Latin extorqueo, refers, at its most abstract, to the action of obtaining something through force, threats, or with difficulty; it is an act of power par excellence. Experiencing this act, or even the possibility of experiencing it, can lead a person to feel an intense fear that puts them in a state of high alert, or even a kind of ‘survival mode.’ Confronting a faceless, anonymous threat, Inés decided to look for help from a person who she trusted and had links to the military, rather than from other members of the institution that she worked for and its direct partners. The call she had recieved the previous day, in which someone demanded money in exchange for not hurting her or her family, had pushed her to discard her public image as a civil servant who trusted in the offices of the state, and had unmasked her as simply one more Guatemalan citizen – distrustful, intimindated and defenceless – who feared for her life and for the lives of her loved ones. In the end, her contact in the army informed her that the call originated in a local jail, and advised her to simply stop picking up the phone. I never found out if, in so doing, she managed to solve her problem.

Months later, as I was analysing the data collected during my fieldwork, I received a threatening call from an unknown number; the person on the other end of the line knew enough about me and my work to make me unformfortable. It was at that moment I remembered Inés’ story, and I asked myself if there might not be a connection between the two cases. Following the advice that she had been given, I decided to stop picking up calls from numbers that weren’t familiar to me (I practice that I mantain to this day). I got a few more calls during the following weeks, but after a while they stopped completely. Eventually I finished my fieldwork and returned to the environment of safety and privilege provided by a university in the US, the country in which I was living and studying all those years ago.

Many of the citizens who are victims of this crime in Guatemala are unable to find a way out whether with the help of the security forces, or with any other local actors. Nor do simple actions such as not answering the phone or ignoring intimidating messages provide them with a solution. Helpless in the face of the clear and imminent threat that extortion represents, the only way out left open to them is to abandon their homes, their cities or even their country in search of safety.  

Migration y extortion: a complex relationship

The issue of the irregular migration of people from Central America’s ‘Northern Triangle’ – made up of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – towards the United States has become a hot topic amongst international diplomats and within certain academic circles. While it is indisputable that the majority of migrants from the northern Central America leave their countries in seach of better economic opportunities, it is also clear that a desire to reunite with family members, and to escape crime, violence and insecurity, help to motivate smaller but still significant numbers of migrants leaving from particular areas, and effect certain countries more than others2 Dinorah Azpurú, Mariana Rodríguez and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister (2018). “Cultura política de la democracia en Guatemala y en las Américas, 2016/17: Un estudio comparado sobre democracia y gobernabilidad”. (Latin American Public Opinion Project), Vanderbilt University; Lizbeth Gramajo y José Luis Rocha (2017), Migración reciente en el altiplano occidental guatemalteco: redes, reunificación familiar y efecto demostración, in Revista Eutopía Año 2, núm 3, enero-junio 2017. Available at: http://recursosbiblio.url.edu.gt/CParens/Revista/Eutopia/Numeros/3/02/3.pdf. 

Extortion is an important issue when it comes to insecurity and irregular migration. In northern Central America, this crime is generally linked to gangs and other criminal groups, who through the use of phone calls, intimidating messages or personal intermediaries, demand varying quantities of money on a regular basis from households and small businesses, usually located in urban areas. The true scale of the problem remains unknown, but one recent report asserted that cases of extortion have risen dramatically during the last five years, provoking internal migration and forced displacement across the three nations of the Northern Triangle [mfnreferencenumber=3] Redlac (2020) “La extorsión: un detonante del desplazamiento interno y la migración forzada en el norte de Centroamérica y México”. Boletín No. 8[/mfn]. Some estimates posit that in Guatemala alone, those being extorted together pay a total of around 60 million US dollars a year on average, a quantity smaller than that paid in eitherl el Salvador or Honduras.4Iniciativa Global Contra el Crimen Organizado Transnacional and Insight Crime (2019). “Una cultura criminal: extorsión en Centroamérica”. These estimates, however, should be viewed with caution, given how difficult it is to measure the real economic impact of a crime that few of its victims ever report.

Just as in the other countries of the region, the link between migration and extortion in Guatemala has been little explored, in part because of underreporting in official statistics, and also because of the practical and conceptual difficulties faced by those who would investigate it in the field. For example, in a survey carried out by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), carried out in Guatemala in 2016, it appears that insecurity, crime and violence are among the causes of people deciding to migrate. Extortion is singled out as contributing to at least 1% of these cases, including those who migrate internally and those who decide to leave the country. The report, however, distinguishes between “criminality,” “problems with gangs or threats,” “insecurity,” “public violence,” and “extortion,” all phenomena that are assumed to be distinct but which, in reality, may also be intimately linked.

My work as a sociologist in Guatemala over the last 15 years has allowed me to become aware of various situations that exemplify the connections that often exist between extortion and migration. I encountered the most illustrative case in 2007, during fieldwork in Mixco, a municipality on the outskirts of Guatemala City well-known for its high rates of deadly violence and gang activity. According to official records, Mixco is the municipality with the second-highest number of murders registered in the country between Janiary 2001 and May 2022, and also had the second-highest number of reported extortions between January 2015 and May 2022. In terms of migration, Mixco doesn’t rank as one of the principal recipients of returned migrants at national level, but, at regional level, it is one of the most important recipients of returned migrants of the Department of Guatemala, surpassed only by the capital and the towns of San Juan Sacatepéquez and Villa Nueva.

During my visits to Carolingia, of of Mixco’s most dangerous neighbourhoods, I was able to verify that a clique of the Barrio 18 gang had taken control of a entire sector of the settlement: a rather gloomy and very deprived residential area, with rows of small, discoloured houses covered in graffiti, some of which my informants told me had been abandoned by their owners due to extortion by the gang members. Such extortion was carried out in variuous ways: via telephone calls, notes pushed under the door or handed directly to homeowners, or direct death-threats by gang members or their accomplices. Contrary to what was reported in the media, the local police knew very well what was going on, but the rumour among various residents was that they had a deal with the gang: as long as the police received monthly payments cut of extortion payments, “they turned a blind eye.”

A graffiti depicting the acronym used by Los Revolucionarios, a faction of the Barrio 18, one of El Salvador's main gangs. Panchimalco, El Salvador, September 2021. Credit: Documentary “The Vertical Border” by Sonja Wolf”

In response to the popular outcry, the army posted a military detatchment to the area, which for a time had an important dissuasive effect. But after a few months, the detatchment and the gang began a kind of nonsensical danse macabre: when the gang members killed someone, the soldiers set out on patrols of the neighbourhood for a couple of days, only to become lethargic once again and wait for a new attack.

Today, Carolingia continues to be one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Guatemala, and cases of people being murdered by gang members, potentially for reasons related to extortion payments, continue to make the news8Meanwhile, the situation in Carolingia differs little from those described in the testimonies of many victims of extortion who have abandoned their homes in recent years9. In all the cases mentioned here, the victims felt terror and helplessness: terror in the face of the death threats of extortionists, and helplessness before the silence or sheer cynicism of state authorities. As long as both problems endure, it’s likely that those affected with continue to flee their homes in seach of safety and a quieter life; some will migrate to another neighbourhood or another region of their own country, but others will inevitably decide to leave the little they have behind them in Guatemala, and undertake the dangerous voyage north to the United States.

Notes

1 In order to protect their identity and their security, the name used here is a pseudonym.

2Dinorah Azpurú, Mariana Rodríguez and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister (2018). “Cultura política de la democracia en Guatemala y en las Américas, 2016/17: Un estudio comparado sobre democracia y gobernabilidad”. (Latin American Public Opinion Project), Vanderbilt University; Lizbeth Gramajo y José Luis Rocha (2017), Migración reciente en el altiplano occidental guatemalteco: redes, reunificación familiar y efecto demostración, in Revista Eutopía Año 2, núm 3, enero-junio 2017. Available at: http://recursosbiblio.url.edu.gt/CParens/Revista/Eutopia/Numeros/3/02/3.pdf

3Redlac (2020). “La extorsión: un detonante del desplazamiento interno y la migración forzada en el norte de Centroamérica y México”. Boletín No. 8. 

4Iniciativa Global Contra el Crimen Organizado Transnacional and Insight Crime (2019). “Una cultura criminal: extorsión en Centroamérica”. Available at: https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Central-American-Extortion-Report-Spanish-03May1055-WEB.pdf 

5International Organization for Migration (2017), “Encuesta sobre migración internacional de personas guatemaltecas y remesas 2016”. Guatemala City: International Organization for Migration (IOM). 

6Homicide database of the National Civil Police, and extortion database of the Ministry of the Interior, availible at: https://dialogos.org.gt/. The extortion database of the Ministry of the Interior is based on reported crimes, meaning it cannot serve as a reliabkle measure of the magnitude and regional patterns of the phenomenon of extortion. 

7See: https://mic.iom.int/webntmi/guatemala/ 

8 See, for example, Noti 7 (28 July 2021), “Asesinan a dueña de una tienda en Colonia Carolingia zona 6 de Mixco,” available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgVQOagnXk4; Canal 3 (3 January 2018), “Colonia Carolingia: Los comercios y la Iglesia Católica pagan extorsión,” available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AG-B8mJ-63U

9 In a recent report, various cases were mentioned of families who fled their homes due to extortion carried out by gangs in El Mezquital and La Limonada, two neighbourhoods with high levels of violence located in the metropolitan area of the Guatemalan capital. See: Iniciativa Global Contra el Crimen Organizado Transnacional (5 July 2021), “Más allá de la amenaza: Efectos de la extorsión en Guatemala”, available at: https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/extortion-guatemala/ 

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