SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Prison officials are confiscating prisoners’ cell phones in an effort to stop inmates from using them to carry out extortion plots, often against businessmen.
It had been common for gang members to demand money from businessmen in exchange for not killing or hurting the businessmen’s family and friends. The extortionists, who often were not caught, were responsible for closing at least three businesses a week nationwide, officials said.
“We saw a jump in the number of extortions in El Salvador, as the numbers grew massively,” said Federico Hernández, executive director of the El Salvador Chamber of Commerce, which informally keeps track of the extortions, given that many victims do not report the crime out of fear of retribution.
But President Mauricio Funes put fighting extortion among his top priorities after taking office in June 2009.
Douglas Moreno, director of the Penitentiary System of El Salvador, which consists of 19 prisons, said prisoners carrying out extortion plots from behind bars had done so with impunity.
“The first thing we had to stop was the supply of cell phones [from getting inside the jails],” said Moreno. “Family visits could not be the only way the phones were supplied. We searched visitors, and in some cases, such as in the Zacatecoluca prison, [we prohibited] prisoners from having contact with their families. But still, prisoners were getting cell phones. [This is how we realized that], clearly, prisoners were getting them through the guards.”
The Directorate of Prisons fired 500 guards accused of being involved in providing cell phones to inmates. There are about 24,000 prisoners nationwide in the Central American country.
Moreno also used the army to form a perimeter around the country’s main prisons. Soldiers perform extensive searches to make sure contraband doesn’t enter a correctional facility.
“[Now], nothing gets through without the soldiers’ seeing it,” Moreno said.
Prison officials also now prohibit children and food from entering correctional facilities after determining both have been used to smuggle narcotics and cell phones to inmates, Moreno said.
The measures have led to a 28% drop in extortions demanded by prisoners from January to July of this year, compared to the same time period a year ago, according to the National Police.
The National Police reported inmates have carried out 1,741 extortions this year, after 2,419 cases were documented in 2010.
Police have made 1,325 extortion-related arrests this year after taking 2,839 into custody on extortion charges last year.
“We believe the level of reports [by victims] has increased, which has helped increase the number of arrests we’ve [been able to make],” said Howard Cotto, chief of operations of the National Civil Police.
Cotto said members of the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 gangs are behind the extortions.
Hernández said large businesses have to pay up to US$15,000 monthly to prevent gang members from committing acts of violence against them.
“A small- or medium-sized business that pays up to US$200 a month in extortion money is enough to cause it to go bankrupt or close it,” Hernández added.
Gerardo Alegría, assistant prosecutor for Human Rights in El Salvador, added that, despite the decrease in extortions overall, they “are happening in more places around the country where they didn’t happen before. People [even] come to the prosecutor’s office asking for more police presence in their neighborhoods.”
Moreno said closed-circuit monitoring systems have been installed in the country’s main prisons to deter prisoners and guards from breaking the law. Prisons also have installed an updated computer system containing every prisoner’s criminal record.
But the prison system’s biggest problem is overpopulation.
La Esperanza, a correctional facility on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, was built to hold 800 prisoners but is home to more than 5,000.