SAN SALVADOR – Ruthless street gangsters, of whom there are thousands in El Salvador, are systematically threatening to kill shop owners if they do not pay protection money, spurring demands for better police work but also the formation of “social cleansing” death squads.
Thousands of owners of small and medium-sized stores, most of whom are afraid to denounce the crime to police, say they could be driven out of business by the racketeers.
Though Salvadoran business owners have been victims of extortion for years, the situation captured the public’s attention recently after business associations informed media outlets of the widespread problem.
National Civil Police director Rodrigo Avila, meanwhile, said his institution has carried out investigations and even arrested gang members who have extorted store owners, but they were subsequently released because the victims have refused to testify and it is difficult for prosecutors to make the evidence against the defendants stand up in court.
Those victimized by extortion fear reprisals from the gang members against them, their family members or their employees, since there have been many acts of revenge against people who report these crimes.
The branch of the El Salvador Chamber of Commerce and Industry in San Miguel, the country’s third-largest city, said in a recent statement that “employees, workers, salespeople and owners of small and medium-sized businesses are experiencing a chaotic situation that can no longer be tolerated.”
It added that many businesses have been forced to close down because of the situation “and the rest of the population is terrified because it doesn’t feel the support of the institutions legally constituted” to provide security.
The situation in San Miguel, an eastern province, is similar to that faced by owners of small businesses in the rest of the country; even vendors in outdoor markets there are forced to pay protection money to the gangs, which the gangsters usually describe as “rent” or “tax.”
Federico Colorado, president of the National Association of Private Enterprise, has also denounced the problem and demanded better coordination among the institutions responsible for fighting crime.
Salvadoran dailies have published numerous articles describing how shopkeepers – harassed by gang members who have demanded payment of large sums of money, amounts even exceeding their earnings –have opted to shut down their businesses, change their place of residence and even leave the country.
Public transport has been especially hard hit by the demand for “taxes” by the gangsters, who are blamed for most of the more than 60 people killed in that sector this year, including bus owners, drivers and conductors.
Also, close to a score of buses have been set ablaze by “unidentified” vandals thus far this year.
The heads of transport associations have told the local press they intend to negotiate with gang leaders in search of a workable agreement, although the government has rejected the idea and says it has the situation under control.
Official figures indicate that there are roughly 8,700 gang members in El Salvador, almost half of whom are in prison.
Salvadoran President Tony Saca in August 2004 launched his “Super Heavy Hand” anti-crime program, which he touted as an expanded and improved version of predecessor Francisco Flores’ “Heavy Hand” initiative.
He has said that the gangs operate in coordination with organized crime groups and have links with other criminal bands across Central America.
The Salvadoran government said Aug. 23 that it is reinforcing police presence in parts of the country most savagely assailed by gangs, after death-squad leaflets appeared in San Miguel vowing extermination of extortion-racket street thugs.
The fliers in San Miguel present a clandestine group called “Black Shadow” threatening to exterminate “extortionists.”
The development has conjured grisly memories of death squads, which usually included police and army officers, that operated during the 1980-92 civil war to eliminate leftists.
The daily El Mundo reported that San Miguel’s district attorney’s office is also investigating the existence of another apparent death squad known as “Commando Central XGN” that allegedly plans to target groups that extort shopkeepers and other business owners.
Will Salgado, San Miguel’s mayor, said Wednesday that the crime problem is “out of the control” of authorities and that, therefore, citizens are looking to take matters into their own hands.
Recent figures provided by the National Police showed that an average of 10 people a day are slain in this Central American nation of nearly 7 million, with most of the murders blamed on the street gangs.