Abstract and Keywords
Today, extortion is the most feared and despised of criminal businesses in Central America, and one of the most common. Gangs are widely blamed as the central culprits of extortion, but, as this chapter argues, they are merely the most visible edge of a cannibalistic approach to survival that is tearing Central American societies apart. Following in the maras footsteps, this chapter maps Guatemala City’s expanding geographies of extortion to trace the entanglements between the evolution of gang extortion rackets, the profits of the extortion economy, and collective efforts to cast and recast a sense of certainty upon extortion’s terror. After assessing the causes and consequences of the maras’ embrace of extortion, it traces how private security corporations and financial institutions, among others, profit from extortion. It then discusses how the struggle to fix collective fears of extortion by way of the maras gives rise to diverse opportunities for material gain through terror for a diverse set of actors willing and able to copy the maras’ approach.
Guatemala City and Villa Nueva, September 2011. Jorge is a taxi driver.1 We spoke as he ferried me across the bridge between Guatemala City and Villa Nueva. Three years before I met him, he had a job driving a bus, making a “decent” living, he said, enough to own a small home in a gated community and to send his kids to school. Then the violence against bus drivers started ramping up, violence that seemed to be connected to extortion rackets, and he had to abandon the job. “Too many compatriots killed,” he said. So he went to work as a guard for a private security company. While working, he was attacked by thieves, who broke his collarbone. He spent his savings on medical bills. Then he started working as a taxi driver. This does not pay well, and he eventually had to give up the home in which he had already invested his life’s savings. Now he and his wife are struggling to keep their children in school. “I don’t think I will be able to pay for the next semester,” he said morosely. “My wife is going to start a little atol stand to make some money, but … .”
A year earlier, alleged extortionists had executed his mother. It’s not clear why, but he thinks she refused to pay extortion tithes for her little fruit stand outside a Villa Nueva school. “It might have been gangs,” Jorge said over garbled radio voices and the rush of traffic, “but I think the police were also involved. I saw my mother on the pavement under the plastic tarp they put over her and I wanted to take revenge, but I know this is not my work. Mano dura, mano floja (iron fist, weak fist), we end up with the same thing. It is up to God and God alone.” He leaned over and pulled out a newspaper clipping (p.148)
about his mother’s murder from the glove compartment. “Here, take it for your book.” I snapped a photograph of it and gave it back.
The dictionary definition of “extort” is “to obtain from another by coercion or intimidation.” It can mean to overcharge, to blackmail, and to engage in “protection rackets.” Protection rackets have been called “organized crime at its smoothest.”2 Here, the term protection has a double meaning, depending on one’s relationship to a given danger and the offered means of shelter from that danger. “‘Protection’ calls upon images of the shelter against danger provided by a powerful friend, a large insurance policy, a sturdy roof” or “it evokes the racket in which a local strong man forces merchants to pay tribute in order to avoid damage—damage the strong man himself threatens to deliver.”3 One way to understand the modern state is as the racketeer that has, over time, managed to monopolize the power to “protect” within its territory by co-opting completely the legitimate use of violence against its taxpaying populace.
(p.149) But the Guatemalan state, like so many struggling sovereigns, has never had such a monopoly over “legitimate” violence.4 The rise of gangs, organized crime, private security, vigilante groups, and narco-trafficking organizations patrolling and controlling bits and pieces of Guatemala presents open challenges to the state’s claim to govern its territory. In certain Guatemala City neighborhoods—el Limon, la Limonada, and Barrio Gallito, to name a few—criminal organizations form a kind of underground authority that competes with or subsumes local state authorities. One result has been the rapid proliferation of protection rackets in poor urban neighborhoods.
Today extortion is the most common of crimes in Central America and the most despised. Its ubiquitous presence is both a symptom of and answer to the collective experience of living with profound doubt over the terms of everyday survival. In the absence of viable state security, it is often difficult to determine just who is in charge. Such conditions are rife with opportunities for entrepreneurs who accrue power and profit by subsuming the sovereign threat of violence, combining it with a promise to protect (for a fee) and imposing their own brand of order.
La Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio18 are widely considered the primary culprits of extortion. The maras were among the first to organize efforts to extract la renta (the rent)—the colloquial term for extortion tithes—from residents and businesses in their respective territories. Extortion now appears to be one of the central activities driving gang violence in Guatemala City and in many other cities across the Northern Triangle of Central America.5 But as Jorge hinted, the business of extortion has become profitable for a wide array of actors beyond the gangs. Mareros, the extortionist subjects par excellence, are in fact the leading edge of a cannibalistic approach to survival that threatens to tear apart the already frayed social fabric. They have become a commonly mimicked model and a smokescreen obscuring vast networks of state agents, financial institutions, private businesses, and countless civilians feeding off the extortion economy. The diffusion of extortion beyond “traditional” criminal networks links the terror in poor neighborhoods with considerable profits for agents who will never need to carry out violence. This terror and these profits, however, remain intimately linked to the maras’ symbolic power. As extortion’s spectral face, the maras are key figures through which people from all walks of life make sense of this bloody business and its brutal consequences. The newspaper clipping Jorge handed me, for example, named Barrio18 as the only suspect in the police investigation.
(p.150) Tracing the maras’ footsteps, this chapter maps Guatemala City’s expanding geographies of extortion to track the entanglements among the evolution of gang extortion rackets, the profits of the extortion economy, and collective efforts to cast and recast a sense of certainty upon extortion’s terror. The struggle to fix such fears by way of the maras gives rise to diverse opportunities for material gain through terror, even as it continually fails, disrupted again and again by unmanageable forces feeding and feeding off so much insecurity. The maras may order society’s fear of extortion, but in places like Guatemala City, extortion orders the world.
The Rise of Mara Extortion
Mareros still refer to la renta as impuesto de guerra, meaning “war tax.” Whether they reference the revolutionary past is not clear. In an internally circulated publication, the Guatemalan justice department traced the practice of collecting “war taxes” back to civil war guerrilla operations in the Guatemalan highlands.6 Ex-military commanders and indigenous peasant troops would threaten to burn down rich landowners’ plantations unless they paid in food or treasure.7 However, the document fails to explain the lines of historical inheritance that brought this practice to urban gangs.
In some neighborhoods, residents trace the use of the term impuesto de guerra to an epoch when the local gang clique collected tithes to fund ongoing feuds with enemy gangs in other barrios. It was meant to fund the community’s self-defense and was distinct from robbery, which was practiced, among the more conscientious cliques anyway, strictly outside the barrio. Mara efforts to collect money from their own communities started with businesses and families residing in the neighborhood, then targeted vendors’ trucks delivering in mara territory. Today, however, gang war, as reason or excuse, is rarely mentioned. Extortion rackets, as I will show, have become unhinged from other exigencies and have a raison d’être all their own.
Like protection rackets run by the Sicilian Mafia and various organized criminal groups in the United States, demands for la renta implicitly entail the possibility of violence.8 But when gang extortion first became a widespread urban phenomenon in the early 1990s, the maras emphasized the softer side of protection.
Like gang veterans, many experienced observers hew to a nostalgic version of history, drawing a decisive break between la renta of yesteryear and contemporary (p.151) extortion rackets. Before he passed away in 2014, Emilio Goubaud was the director of one of the oldest gang rehabilitation organizations in Guatemala. In 2011, sitting in his ramshackle office in a neighborhood where extortion threats had closed down all but a few family-run businesses, he told me that when gangs first started exacting tribute from local businesses—mostly corner stores, the ubiquitous tiendita found in every poor Guatemala City neighborhood—“la renta was a kind of primitive taxation scheme where the ‘clients’ paid the gangs for round the clock protection as they would pay a private security firm to guard against intruders.”
This comparison between gangs and the security industry, which has been postwar Guatemala’s fastest growing legal industry, is a common refrain among former gang members, civilians, and gang experts. In the ever-receding golden past, if you were rich enough to afford the Q700 ($90) a week for a shotgun-toting, uniformed guard to stand outside your place of business for twelve-hour stretches, you hired private security. Otherwise, you contracted with the local gang for a homie, or more likely a chequeo, to provide a similar service. Instead of a shotgun, he might have a black market handgun tucked into his jeans.
Of course it was never that simple. During the five years he worked the streets (in the late 1990s), Juande and his homies collected la renta from store owners in Mixco, a suburb of Guatemala City. He claimed it was a peaceful operation, even if he had to engage in underhanded coercion from time to time to make it profitable. “In that time, we only sold protection—and the people came to us to tell us that someone was bothering them,” he said as we watched fellow prisoners play soccer on a concrete court in Pavón. “Perhaps we gave the right to protect to another homie, and he took care of it. … When a store wouldn’t pay, we sent a dude from another corner to do a coralina, that is, to rob without assaulting … but we only did it to convince them that they needed protection.” He trailed off and then shook his head. “We should have finished with it then, but we didn’t know we would go to cannibalizing other poor people like us.”
This is the crux of the matter: even as some gang members still mouth the refrain of protecting the barrio for a fee, almost everyone, including mareros themselves, know this is pure fiction. Whatever communal solidarity maras once claimed has been lost or discarded. The maras’ role in protecting their neighborhoods from hostile intruders has been sublimated into the pursuit of extraction, plain and simple. Even in those neighborhoods where gang (p.152) protection rackets began as a kind of communal response to insecurity, in less than a decade the dominant ethos became one of profit through violence. And this violence broke the boundaries of what are remembered as hallowed rules of combat.9 Underpinning this shift was a growing sense of alienation between the gang and the neighborhood communities where they operated. This communal fracturing had a lot to do with the state’s efforts to deal with the “gang threat.” The same heavy-handed policing that packed the prisons with mareros also made the state complicit in the increasing violence of mara extortion.
Prison life was key in nurturing the transformation. From the isolation of prison mara leaders leveraged their ability to raise funds from the street. Is it a coincidence that the daily operation of the prison system itself depends on an informal taxation scheme that is extortion in all but name? Recall that talacha—the prison taxation scheme discussed in chapter 3—forces every newly arrived inmate to pay a tax, and refusal to pay this tax results in hard labor, physical punishment, or worse. Whether or not incarcerated mareros learned from this model, extortion appears to have been the quickest—and certainly the easiest—means of establishing a steady cash flow to soften life in prison, feed their families, and keep themselves armed against their enemies on the street. At the same time, consolidation of command structures inside prison meant that the business of extortion could be corporatized. Mass incarceration of mareros helped turn gang extortion into a viable business model.10
The prisons were crucibles forging new relationships among gang members from various urban zones and cities. But by separating gang members from their home neighborhoods, mass incarceration weakened and even severed the communal ties that once seemed to have grounded and regulated gang violence. To escape heightened state pressure, both Barrio18 and the MS began circulating homies to conduct gang business outside the neighborhoods in which they grew up. To organize a hit against a rival gang in a neighboring colonia, for example, an incarcerated gang leader might exchange soldiers with another gang leader because they wouldn’t be recognized as neighbors. “You could just walk into a group from the enemy gang and start firing,” recalled a former MS member. “And no one would know what you were until you were gone.” Such strategies were highly successful, even as they sharpened the fear and paranoia of daily life.
Ramfleros employed the same strategy in collecting extortion payments and threatening or killing recalcitrant clients. The “rights” to extort a given (p.153) neighborhood were often negotiated between hardened convicts inside prison, and mara youth on the street could be called to conduct hits in barrios they had never seen before. Driven by the economic imperatives and conditions of possibility created by incarceration, maras’ repertoire of violence shifted from an ethos of combat (defending against or attacking a threat to the community) to an ethos of extortion—that is, coercing tithes from innocent victims by any means possible.
“Killing innocent people became part of la renta,” said Mo, who lived through the transition into the more violent era, committing more murders for the MS than he was willing to admit before he fell out with his colleagues. “Before you could intimidate just with words, but then people didn’t listen so much, so you had to really scare them. … People today don’t even pay attention if you kill someone with a shooting. It’s just a lost bullet. Today you have to dismember and terrorize the people … if you want to have power.”11 Whereas la renta was once an exchange between business owners and local youth who pledged to stop outsiders from robbing in the neighborhood, it transformed into alien and alienated agents threatening to hurt anyone who refused to make regular installments.
For maras today, extortion has become far more than simply a means of making money; it has become a signature facet of their claim to power, which, like most forms of governance, is hooked to territorial control.12 In the face of heightened police scrutiny, the old methods of advertising gang dominance over urban space (graffiti) and over members’ bodies (tattoos) have noticeably diminished. Today, they measure their power by the number of households they tax, the earnings the gang treasurer logs.
Before Andy abandoned the MS he was, he claimed, a primary enforcer of extortion threats, killing those who refused to pay. In one of his courtroom interrogations, a prosecutor asked, “During the course of your declaration you indicated that the Mara Salvatrucha is dominating the world. Can you indicate to what you refer with this expression?”
“Of dominating the world?” he replied. “More than anything, how can I say it, from pure extortions they are controlling territory. They are a big gang. … [T]hey have a ton of soldiers. What I’m telling you is that they are expanding like rats, throughout the world. The vatos have a great power.”
Killing “clients” who refuse to pay their dues is only the beginning. To instill the proper fear, maras employ more sophisticated forms of intimidation. The brutal corporeal violence that Mo referred to—decapitation, dismemberment, (p.154) and so on—has been accompanied by evolving methods of psychological terror. A workingman struggling to support his family, when threatened by a fifteen-year-old with a gun, might be willing to risk refusing to pay up, in the hope that the gang won’t bother following through on the threat. But, the logic goes, menace that man’s family—threaten to rape his daughter and torture his son, and make sure he knows you have done it before and will do it again—and he will be on his knees begging for mercy. A man’s love for his family makes him vulnerable, and such exposed weaknesses are extortion’s bread and butter. Indeed, the most ruthless and successful mara cliques have spent the last few decades honing their capacity to identify and exploit exactly these sorts of vulnerabilities. Some have become so adept that they do not even need to explicitly threaten violence to convince extortion victims to pay up.
Tower of Tribunals, Guatemala City, June 2012. Andy sits on a raised platform before a panel of judges and an army of prosecutors. One of the lawyers is asking him, for the record, to define certain key terms he used to describe his gang’s activities.
What does “la renta” mean?
La renta. La renta is when the ramflero gives an order to go and set up an extortion, ask for bills (barras), ask for money from a corner store. For example: it’s a big store, you understand, they come with a letter with a number that the dude has to call. When the dude calls, you give the vibe that you’re gonna care for them and you’ll give them protection and at the same time the dude will report with the gang (plebe).13 So, they ask for approximately 5,000 bills ($650) for entry for which they give a maximum term of ten days for the dude to pay, and then they put it at 400 bills weekly you understand. With the dude you speak nicely (de pinta) … and if the dude doesn’t want to collaborate with the plebe, the ramflero will be told and the ramflero gives the order to go and kill him. This is what extortion and charging la renta means.
At their smoothest, mara extortion schemes resemble formalized business models. The gang expects clients to pay an established rate, though as with all transactions in the informal market, payment is subject to barter. The promise to protect is a formal article of the contract, and the gang presents this protection in conciliatory terms. There is a preferred tone and friendly approach. If the client cannot produce the entire sum up front, he or she can go with the payment plan. Often the mortal threat attached to the request need not be openly expressed. But it is the red thread running through every transaction between maras and those they extort.
(p.155) Contemporary gang extortion rackets only function with such smoothness in spaces where they have established unrivaled control over the use of violence. These neighborhoods are legion, scattered throughout the poorer zones of the city and concentrated in peripheral areas that have always fallen outside both the formal capitalist economy and the state’s promise of protection. Everyone in mara territory knows the score. For example, during the years Katherine Saunders-Hastings spent conducting ethnographic research in a Guatemala City neighborhood dominated by the Barrio18, she found that children and youths were well aware that no one—not the government “authorities” or their own parents—could protect them if their family failed to pay. These children must also carve out their own security.14 Often this means getting close to someone inside the gang in the hopes that amicable association will provide a buffer against the gang’s demands. But how can they remain on the periphery when the gang’s gravitational pull is so strong? And so in these neighborhoods, extortion rackets often employ significant subsets of the population. Most of those involved in its day-to-day business are not even bona fide mareros.
While local gang members and incarcerated leaders dictate how much tax to levy and from whom to collect it, it is often their neighbors, relatives, girlfriends, and wives who deliver the written demands or hand over the cell phone with an incarcerated marero waiting on the line to threaten a victim. In a zone 18 neighborhood built into a ravine and dominated by a Barrio18 clique, children as young as eight work as watchmen (banderas), taking note of what goes on in the neighborhood, while grandmothers collect la renta on the gang’s behalf. As in other mara-dominated neighborhoods, the only individuals able to run corner stores or other small businesses are gang members’ kin, girlfriends, or other gang associates (paros) on friendly terms with the gang. Everyone else gets taxed or threatened into bankruptcy.15 Today, as much as one-third of residences in this zone 18 neighborhood have been abandoned due to extortion demands that residents would not or could not pay. Other poor urban neighborhoods exhibit similar patterns.16
Field Notes, 15th floor of the Tower of Tribunals, May 2012
Waving my press pass at guards in blue uniforms, I enter the courtroom with the vaulted ceiling, the cage of the accused, the lawyers’ tables set before the judge’s platform. Opposite the entrance a bulletproof glass window affords a panoramic view of the city below.
shaved and faces tattooed. Two in white, two in orange jumpsuits, they sit chained by the ankles in the glass and metal cage. In the gallery sit two dozen women handcuffed to each other in pairs. All but three are young, wearing heavy makeup, boots, tight jeans. They sit in silence, except for a girl with thick, smiling lips and heavy silver mascara. She giggles and makes jokes, communicating in gestured signs with one of the caged leaders. The oldest woman—in her late fifties I would guess—sits heavily in her chair wearing a blank stare. Her daughter sits beside her, occasionally leaning her head on her mother’s shoulder.
I wonder how it would be to be handcuffed to my mother—or to my daughter—facing the state’s accusations and all its portents.
Defense lawyers crowd a table set before the judge’s raised platform. They bump elbows as they shift about, reaching for the shared microphone. A single lawyer for the prosecution sits facing them across the room. He spends most of the time reading text messages and inspecting his fingernails.
(p.157) Along the gallery’s perimeter stand dozens of heavily armed police. Men in gray uniforms and gray caps hold old machine guns with wood panel grips. Men in black uniforms and black berets hold Israeli Tavor assault rifles, heavy clips jutting out like tusks. They all have 9mm pistols in hip holsters or shoved into the front of their bulletproof vests. They are here for our protection, I suppose, standing around so tense and bored. But what the hell do you do with that much firepower in one room? Any one of them starts firing and we’re all dead, I think. I take my seat behind three male defendants without visible tattoos, sitting across the aisle from the women.
The day wears on with much shuffling of papers. With so many defendants, the piles of evidence get confused, and each defense lawyer is in charge of several defendants, so the documents must be divvied up among them. Inside the cage, the gang members shift about in their chains. The women talk in hushed voices and take turns holding a toddler. She crawls beneath their chairs across the linoleum floor.
Judge Walter Villatoro is reviewing the enormous pile of documents set before him. According to his summary, the caged men allegedly selected the companies to target and made the extortion threats via cell phone. The women picked up the payments in small increments—no more than $500 worth of quetzales at a time. The three men sitting in the row before me were allegedly enforcers—shooting bus drivers when their bosses failed to make timely payments. The whole operation depended entirely on the transportation company being too cowed to report to the police. All of this is laid out in recorded phone conversations, bank records, victims’ testimonies, rap sheets from the prosecution. The defense has merely provided a motley collection of affidavits attesting to this and that woman’s character, along with pay stubs and birth records. These are good, hard-working mothers, they bleat. No one is denying involvement in the racket. No one is fighting, only asking for mercy.
A white-haired defense lawyer interrupts the judge’s study. Could the caged prisoners, whose mothers and wives and sisters sit accused and handcuffed to each other some twenty feet away, get the chance to talk to their loved ones while the judge reviews the files?
Judge Villatoro is nothing if not a humanitarian. “Seeing how today is Mother’s Day, and while these prisoners have lost their right to liberty of movement they remain subject to all the other constitutional rights provided to Guatemalan citizens, it seems to me they should be able to talk and interact with their relations as long as security is not compromised. So please, those who wish to visit with their loved ones may do so in groups of two.”
In many poor urban neighborhoods, mara-directed extortion rackets constitute a brutal form of taxation and spatial control with little pretense of “governance” beyond the terror necessary to ensure smooth and timely extraction (p.158) of la renta. The gangs do not seek to mold their clients beyond instilling fear in ways that will not soon be forgotten. However, the kin networks, neighbors, and other gang associates through which the maras collect la renta make extortion far more than merely a brutal criminal business or even a “parallel mode of production and profiteering” that appropriates or mimics some aspect of state sovereignty.17 Rather, extortion constitutes a pivotal social relation in the communities where it has become entrenched. Residents survive by either taking part in or capitulating to the maras’ rules, by either preying upon their community or being preyed upon.18
The Profits of Extortion
The networks through which extortion rackets spread terror and extract profit go far beyond mara territory. Most of the money leveraged from such suffering does not remain in the pockets of accomplices, rank-and-file mareros, or even gang leadership. Instead, it flows into the hands of state agents and financial institutions, while communal efforts to defend against extortion threats almost inevitably profit private security corporations. And so extortion rackets feeding upon poor, insecure space generate significant wealth for many who never need threaten or kill in order to reap dividends.
Let us return to the prison. The most well-developed, prison-based extortion schemes can generate profits far greater than what is needed for daily existence behind bars. In maximum security facilities, where most gang leaders are housed, there are few diversions on which to spend money besides the bribes and kickbacks necessary to keep the system running.19 The profits of extortion join the flow of money, information, and other commodities across the prison system’s porous boundaries. In exchange for allowing gangsters and other inmates to communicate and exchange with their street networks, prison staff get a cut of the profits. Police are also often involved, receiving their cut in return for looking the other way or even taking an active role in identifying potential victims. Beat cops and rank-and-file prison guards earn little more than the national minimum wage of Q3,300/month (about $400), and the bribes they receive can easily double or triple their monthly income.
State agents are not merely tools of criminal-run extortion networks. Incarcerated extortionists, street operatives, and government agents form symbiotic networks to extract profit through terror, and it is often unclear who, ultimately, is calling the shots. “These poor gangsters are only the lowest (p.159) on the ladder,” exclaimed an evangelical pastor working in a gang-dominated Guatemala City suburb. “I have no motivation to tell the police the things that happen, because they are often running the charade themselves. I remember one night at 2:00 a.m. a policeman came to one of the boys’ houses and started beating him, yelling, ‘I asked for a good cellphone, not this piece of shit!’”
Government agents are not the only “outsiders” to profit from the extortion economy. Once collected, extortion monies filter through gangs’ networks as quotas for homies; it might only be Q1,000 (about $125) a month, but it’s regular. Money also flows to lawyers to represent homies in legal trouble; doctors and nurses are paid a retainer to be on call; and in the last few years, gang “treasurers” have been reinvesting in working-class businesses: car washes, bus lines, microbuses, and so on. Thus, extorted profits work their way back into the licit economy, suturing it to the fear and suffering this coldblooded business requires and reproduces.
But this is only the beginning. Arturo Aguilar was assistant to Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s former attorney general (2008–2013). When I asked him in 2013 about the obstacles his office faced in prosecuting extortion cases, I expected him to talk about police corruption, bureaucratic intransigence, and the widespread fear victims have of reporting crimes. But to my surprise he replied, “Look, most of the money goes through the banks, and it is impossible to trace … because we have virtually no way of forcing financial institutions to reveal their records.” As extortionists move more and more money electronically, the extortion commodity chain increasingly involves Guatemala’s largest financial institutions. As in the case described above, in which more than two dozen women collected money extorted from a bus company, banks make considerable profits off the regular deposits victims make into anonymous bank accounts.
After the court hearing for the thirty-two alleged extortionists, when the defendants had all been bussed back to their respective prisons, I joined Judge Villatoro in his office. We discussed the plight of those two dozen girlfriends, wives, and mothers handcuffed in his courtroom. A tall, bulky man with a thick black mustache and an avuncular kindness, Villatoro cut an impressive figure in his black robe. He spoke regretfully of the female defendants. “They should never have let themselves get involved!” he said, but then abruptly switched the subject and his tone. “Ah, I can send the mareros away just like this,” he exclaimed in a stentorian baritone, snapping his fingers. “But the banks! No one goes after the banks. And, believe me, they know what is going on.”
(p.160) In recent years various Guatemalan banks, many of which do not require clients to register personal information when depositing or collecting funds, appear to have made untold millions off the 10 percent surcharge on each extortion payment transferred through their systems. To date, no bank has been prosecuted or even investigated for its involvement in extortion schemes.20 According to government officials who chose to remain anonymous, this is because Guatemala’s richest families maintain ultimate control over national banks. Congressional efforts to pass stricter financial oversight laws have repeatedly failed because the political and economic consortiums representing elite interests will not let them go forward.21 As Aguilar said a few months before he and Paz y Paz were forced out of office: “Every case we decide to pursue involves a calculation, and this calculation must always take into account what big powers we are going up against. When we go up against the banks, we can do nothing.” Extortion, so often defined as “the poor eating their fellow poor,” cannot be disentangled from systemic impunity and considerable profits reaching up to the highest levels of society.
While extortion has been the fastest growing illicit business since the end of the civil war, private security, its legal doppelgänger, is the region’s number 1 growth industry. The maras’ extortion profits are nothing compared to those reaped by private security. In 2005 Guatemala spent $574.3 million—approximately 1.8 percent of its gross domestic product—on private security.22 Although there is a dearth of reliable data pertaining to private security profits in subsequent years, it is clear that spending on private security has continued to grow. Today there are 141 registered private security companies in Guatemala employing 48,240 guards, as well as 30,000–40,000 additional “clandestine” private security agents working for illegal companies.23 The Guatemalan government’s efforts to regulate this industry—which has been accused of criminal ties and involvement in extrajudicial killings—have failed spectacularly. The ongoing windfall for security corporations has provoked new assemblages of criminal threat, government intervention, and private profit.24
Villa Nueva and Guatemala City, January 2012
Colonia Castañas is a small neighborhood located just before the bridge between Villa Nueva and Guatemala City. Elizabet, a prison social worker and longtime Colonia Castañas resident, told me that nearly every single household (p.161) in her neighborhood received an extortion letter slipped under their door at the end of November 2011. They were distributed by ladroncitos (little thieves) from the nearby community of Mezquital. She thought they were Barrio18, but she was not sure. Up until these threats, Castañas was unclaimed by Barrio18 or the Mara Salvatrucha and thus fair game. This group was trying to make its move. In response, young and middle-aged neighborhood men donned ski masks and mounted patrols armed with bats, knives, and the occasional firearm to defend the community.
But the vigilantes were a short-term affair, because meanwhile the neighborhood committee lobbied the city government to provide protection. In February of 2012 the government granted them permission to close off all but one of the entrances to the neighborhood to through traffic, motorized or otherwise (the ladroncitos came in by car and motorbike), and establish a private security checkpoint at the remaining entrance. Now, everyone must carry an ID card to get in. Elizabet showed me hers, a simple pink plastic card that could have been a gym membership. Each resident now makes a monthly payment for the new system.
The gang did not take long to attempt revenge. Edwin Ortega, the Villa Nueva police chief had done little more than act as middleman between the community and the private security firm. Nevertheless, Ortega told me, the frustrated gang sent two seventeen-year-old chequeos on a mission against the local police station. Eager to earn some recognition, they lobbed grenades over the station wall into the courtyard, where a dozen or so civilians waited in line. The boys panicked, however, or had a crisis of conscience, and never pulled the pins.
The Colonia Castañas community banded together to protect itself and eventually found a long-term solution by isolating entry and exit to one avenue guarded 24/7 by private security. Thus, an ad hoc “enclave community” was created and the costs of this newfound security were paid out of pocket by the enclave’s residents.25 In the final analysis, Barrio18’s attempt to extract extortion ended up providing new profits to a private security firm. This is typical of “successful” efforts to stave off the threat of extortion.
In order to profit from public fear, both private security companies and maras depend on the government’s failure to secure the city. Both extract payments from urban communities with the promise to protect. Gangs depend on their reputation for hyperviolence to scare off would-be rivals and thieves while coercing timely extortion payments from clients. Private security firms arm their guards with 12-gauge shotguns, the highest caliber weapons that nongovernment personnel can legally carry. Finally, both employ poor, uneducated young men, give them guns, and put them in harm’s way. Today, nearly the entire young male populations of some rural villages seek employment in (p.162) security firms, leaving their communities to work in Guatemala City and other urban centers for the pitiful wages these companies offer.
The differences between private security and extortion rackets are, of course, obvious, especially with today’s brutal version of la renta. Gangs siphon money from their fellow poor (albeit slightly less poor than most) and create some part of the terror from which they promise to protect their clientele. Security firms merely leverage general fear into moneymaking opportunities, while their investors, many of whom are drawn from the rich elite, lobby successfully against raising Guatemala’s 12 percent tax rate, ensuring that the national police force will remain underfunded, undertrained, and out-gunned.26 If gangs have become parasites, then perhaps private security firms are merely symbiotes. But I cannot help seeing this distinction as somewhat superfluous. Both self-consciously feed off the same overwhelming collective fear, the same pervading uncertainty that has spread far beyond the “red zones” and mara-dominated spaces to engulf the city itself.
Mara Masquerade: From Criminal Enterprise to Postwar Zeitgeist
In August 2012 I accompanied a police raid on a house in a suburban enclave just outside the city. Armed with AK-47s, the swat team stormed both entrances and captured two men and three kilos of cocaine in plastic baggies. The lead investigators were immensely satisfied, slapping each other on the back and talking of promotions. “It’s the famous (el famoso) Scrappy,” they whispered as police dragged a shirtless man in boxers into the courtyard. “El famoso Scrappy!” Later, the presumed gang connection would prove false. These were simply low-level drug runners betrayed by a colleague or competitor. The press arrived soon afterward, shooting pictures and video of the two arrested men handcuffed, huddled in a sliver of shade in the concrete courtyard. A child’s stroller and baby toys were strewn about, and a small dog lay loyally at the men’s feet. Aware of the rumor that they were gang members, one of them begged, “Just don’t call us extortionists in your report. We’re just men trying to make a living.”
As the most feared and despised criminal enterprise in a time when rampant insecurity defines urban life, extortion has become the zeitgeist of the post–civil war era. Many urbanites consider extortion to be worse than immediate bodily violence. As Isabel Aguilar of Interpeace Guatemala, an (p.163) antiviolence organization, said, “Extortion leaves one without hope. Why are you going to work if they’re going to take away the little you earn?”27 Today, maras are the phantasmagoric face of extortion. The image of the tattooed gang leader residing comfortably at home, or even behind bars, as his network of extortionists terrorize and suck the lifeblood out of good, law-abiding citizens has been etched into the public consciousness. Hence the poor fools above were desperate to be seen as hardworking drug dealers rather than as marero extortionists.
Mass media have played a key role in forming and feeding this image. Virtually any day of the week, one can pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV to a flood of images and stories of gruesome murders, massacres, and mutilations. This murky “death porn” has become standard fare for the Guatemalan public and an important vector for enhancing extortion’s profitability.28 Indeed, exceptional violence (dismemberment, rape, etc.) has proven an incredibly efficient business practice. The more spectacular the brutality imputed to the maras, the more widely the fear of extortion circulates in the community and in the press, the further the maras’ message of intimidation travels, and the more willing their “clients” will be to make timely extortion payments.
The image of the marero extortionist, and the terror it transmits, also serve as a means of papering over the uncertainty swirling about urban crime and insecurity.29 For example, when I asked Villa Nueva’s chief prosecutor what part of the daily crime in her district could be verifiably connected to gang extortion, she replied, “It has become impossible to know because it is always changing. Neither can we differentiate between maras, narco-traffickers, and other organized criminal groups.” It is widely believed that some gang cliques regularly carry out murders and other business at the orders of narcos and organized crime, and besides, with less than 5 percent of violent crimes ever prosecuted, many victims, along with the viewing public, are left to identify the predators by themselves.
The urge to root all this murder in the maras and their extortion rackets has made it possible for extortion to expand in astounding ways, drawing in a diverse set of perpetrators and victims far beyond the maras and their “clients.” Anyone willing and able to perform the role carved out by mareros in public perception can get in on the extortion game. Instead of impersonating the state to pull off “counterfeit crimes”—as a variety of illicit actors in post-colonial societies are known to do—countless anonymous extortionists instead choose to play the “mara masquerade.”30
(p.164) The chief of PANDA, Guatemala’s anti-gang unit, cited a dozen examples of extortion rackets run by individuals pretending to be gangsters. One of the most successful was a man named El Nica, an inmate in Fraijanes 2 maximum security facility, who had become particularly adept at the mara masquerade.31 He would peruse the newspapers each day looking for murders involving taxi drivers or other employees of commonly extorted companies. “I only call up the big ones,” he said. “Hotels, taxi companies, that kind of thing.” After finding the company’s phone number, he would call in the threat.
Ostilio Novegil, the investigator who finally caught El Nica, made little effort to hide his amusement as he recollected the prisoner’s tactics. “That shithead could speak pure marero slang,” he laughed. “He would tell them, ‘This is El Smiley of Barrio18’—or some other famous marero—‘Did you read the newspaper? Well you know we killed your driver. If you don’t want anyone else to be killed, deposit Q15,000 in such and such account.’” According to police records, El Nica managed to bring in as much as Q20,000 (about $2,500) a week. “He never killed a single person,” the investigator said. “The guy didn’t even have any hitmen on the street.”
This sort of masquerade is not limited to the incarcerated. Anyone clever, desperate, or ruthless enough to emulate the gang approach can reap the profits. Former members of the military have been caught pretending to be mareros making extortion threats. Disgruntled employees have made extortion threats against their employers, and estranged family members have targeted their own relatives.
In rackets targeting public transportation, rival bus and trucking companies are thought to be responsible for up to 40 percent of the associated murders.32 Bus inspectors, quasi-government functionaries who coordinate bus schedules among various private contractors, often act as middlemen between extortionists and bus companies. They facilitate the exchange of money and demands and a take a cut of the profits. Bus driver’s assistants, often young men drawn from gang-affected neighborhoods, have also been blamed for passing information on daily profits and bus schedules to extortion networks. Such violent competition has made driving a Guatemala City bus arguably the “most dangerous job in the world” over the last several years—with more than five hundred bus drivers gunned down between 2007 and 2011.33
Though still moored in the image of the maras, fear of extortion has practically gone atmospheric. The ever-present possibility of extortion, like political (p.165) terror, makes everyone feel they need to watch their backs, watch their words, watch their neighbors. But unlike under political terror, one’s suspected ideological affiliations mean little; it’s not what one thinks that matters.34 If extortionists consider their target at all, it’s how much money they imagine one earns and how vulnerable one appears that make one a potential victim. While urban poor remain the most abject before the threat of extortion, the field of potential victims has expanded far beyond their neighborhoods.
Ostilio, the investigator who caught El Nica, is a former military sergeant who worked for the prison system investigating extortion threats emerging from behind bars. By Guatemalan standards, he made a decent income—enough to own a modest home in a middle-class neighborhood—and when we spoke in 2013 he had recently bought a new car. His office walls were plastered with maps of criminal networks, marero mug shots, and blueprints of various Guatemalan prisons. But when, sitting at home one afternoon, he answered his phone to hear a stranger threatening to kill his family unless he deposited Q10,000 (about $1,200) in a bank account within three days, he was caught off guard.
“This asshole spoke with utter politeness,” Ostilio grimaced. He mimed holding a phone to his ear. “‘Look, we don’t want to have to kill any of your kids, but we know your schedule, we know where they go to school… .’ I told him to shut his damn mouth and never call me again, and then I hung up. Then the phone rang again, and when I picked it up he started yelling and threatening, and I replied, ‘Look, I know where you’re calling from. I can have the guards pick you up in two hours. You don’t know who you’re dealing with. Never call my house again.’ And you know what? He never did.”
Impressed with his chutzpah, I asked him how he was able to face down the threat with such aplomb. He grinned ruefully and shook his head. “He threatened to kill my ‘kids’,” he said, “and I only have one child. That is how I knew, and could answer with such confidence. If he had not given himself away … oof, I would have been in trouble.”
Receiving cold-call threats from strangers riffling randomly through telephone directories is increasingly common for residents of Guatemala City and other parts of urban Central America. If you own a cell phone in Guatemala City long enough, in all likelihood you will receive such a threat. Ostilio had the knowledge, experience, and luck to identify this would-be extortionist as a fake. Others, far too many others, do not, and must negotiate without ever knowing for sure whether their survival is on the line.
(p.166) Cold-call extortion schemes are mostly sporadic, once-off affairs—a threat is made, the money is collected—or not—and that’s that. They do not require the maras’ territorial control and street operatives, or even the clever opportunism of someone like El Nica. Rarely do they pose any “real” threat, but in a sense, that is beside the point. How is one to decide which threats are real? Cold-call extortion merely requires a certain percentage of victims made docile by fear. Perpetrators need not cull money from every call. “Out of every one hundred calls I made,” said Juande, who supported himself for years with cold-call extortion, “if one or two agreed to pay, that was enough.”35
For many residents of Guatemala City and other parts of Central America, there is no sanctuary. Extortion threats can arrive at any hour, anywhere, against practically any kind of victim. Schools, humanitarian organizations, and even church parishes have received demands for la renta. The ever-present threat of extortion corrodes the pretense that personal security is possible.36 In the never-ending calculations of risk all city dwellers—rich and poor alike—must make as they navigate urban life, such unaccountable randomness destroys the capacity to judge whether, when, and where one can feel safe. While this fear is still concentrated in poor urban neighborhoods where illicit actors dominate, today it has also spread across the city, the nation, and the region.
Indeed, by taking advantage of the lack of oversight on financial institutions and the ease with which money can be electronically moved across borders, extortionists in Central America and Mexico can today work transnationally. The Transnational Anti-Gang Unit (CAT)—an initiative trained and funded by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—has traced extortion demands made from southern Mexico and El Salvador to Guatemala City, and inmates in Guatemalan prisons have extorted businesses and families in El Salvador and Honduras. Demands for la renta can arrive from any quarter: business rivals, police, one’s own family or employees, or random strangers based hundreds of miles away.
Maras, with their gothic tattoos and brash embrace of brutality, provide extortion with a recognizable face. They may mask the myriad actors feeding off the extortion economy, but in so doing they help make extorted life livable by providing an anchor for the otherwise floating sense of terror and impotent rage. In the end, however, they are not nearly enough. The maras cannot mask the fact that extortion has become a way of organizing life on the most intimate of scales. It is an alternative livelihood and a zero-sum game in which, willingly (p.167) or not, knowingly or not, the majority of Central Americans must participate. And the deeper one digs, the harder it is to trust that anyone’s hands are clean.
Zone 8, Guatemala City, September 2011
It’s 2:00 a.m. For the last several hours I have been hanging with Tommy and his workers in his carpentry shop. Tommy maintains a number of small businesses, including this shop, a laundromat, and several corner stores, among others. He also runs cocaine and marijuana as a low-level, freelance transporter with a consortium of cartels, and is, as I will learn much later, a middleman for assassination contracts. As a matter of charity, he says, he also gives ex-mareros temporary jobs. To get them on their feet, he says. But right now, Tommy is singing karaoke—mostly Mexican ballads and narco-corridos (drug ballads)—in what passes for his office.37 Everyone else is bored stiff, which doesn’t bother Tommy. A former Barrio18 member sits in a plastic chair drinking Coca Cola, nervously tapping his foot. He has “Fuck God” and “Fuck Love” tattooed across his neck. He leaves early. Tommy’s other workers get drunk on the beer I brought. But once the last bottle empties, a few of them leave to huff solvents. With the room stinking of paint thinner, I figure it’s time to make my exit. But then “Linkon,” a guy with an Abraham Lincoln–style beard, asks me to follow and leads me out to the car. Tommy is in the driver’s seat, letting the engine idle.
“Are you hungry?”
“Sure, but I spent all my bills on the beer.”
“Don’t worry about that. That’s not a problem.”
“And I have to get back to my apartment—”
“Ah don’t be a gringo, Gringo. Don’t worry. I’ll get you home.”
I get in the front passenger seat and Linkon gets in the back. Tommy peels out. We drive a couple blocks to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. A bare yellow bulb lights the scene. A young boy mopping the floor looks up as we enter and then quickly down again. We sit down at the table nearest the street and an old woman wearing a checkered apron approaches from behind the counter.
Tommy orders soup for everyone. Linkon fixes me with a bloodshot stare and jerks his head toward a pair of police trucks parked thirty yards down the street.
“You see that? That’s a police station. The fucking pigs act like they’re in charge, but we’re the ones who rule here. You’ll see.”
I nod, unsure what else to do.
The soup arrives and we eat quickly. Tommy alternates between making crass jokes and singing snippets of his favorite melodies. He orders a Coca Cola he does not drink and needles me about my gringo accent. When it’s time to go, I search my pockets again for any remaining money and find none. Not good. You don’t want to be out of cash in this city—you never know when you’ll be robbed or have to pay off the cops. Tommy and Linkon are already in the car and I get up to follow. The old woman follows me out to the sidewalk and stops. She just stands there. I turn and say good night. She nods but does not smile.
“Pay?” Tommy shakes his head. “I don’t have to pay. They pay me a rent just to stay open.”
“That’s right!” Linkon crows. “We charge the rent while the pigs eat shit!”
It suddenly dawns on me. I’ve just participated in extortion—a mild, everyday extortion. I don’t like it. Not at all. I feel angry and embarrassed, but most of all, I feel stupid. It must show because as he speeds through the night Tommy slaps me on the back, saying, “Ah Gringo, don’t worry. You did nothing wrong. You were only riding along. And all this…”—he waves his hand vaguely, gesturing back toward the restaurant, the police station, the deserted street—“All this is normal. I am lucky enough to be the one who charges, and not one of those who pays. As they say, ‘would you rather hear the sound of weeping in your neighbor’s home, or in your own?’”
Years later, Tommy is gone—dead or on the lam, I do not know—but his question lingers. I had no answer then, and I have no answer now. From what Archimedean point of morality does one cast judgment on Tommy and his ilk when the terms of survival seem to be etched in such stark, unforgiving terms for so many living and dying in Guatemala City? Not that extortionists of any stripe should be absolved of the suffering they wreak. But too often, living under a regime of extortion means taking part, one way or another, in its brutal calculus.
The following chapters examine and extend this disturbed blurring of innocence and guilt, structure and agency, through the lens of violent spectacles perpetrated by the maras. Such acts are essential to the maras’ symbolic power and have helped launch them onto the world stage. At the same time, this kind of spectacle has a way of drawing supposed outsiders, both distant and close, into the very heart of the terror the maras represent.
(2.) Tilly, “War Making and State Making,” 69. I follow J. M. Cruz’s assertion that “organized crime would be understood as any group with the capability to develop an illegal system in which the members of the group demand money from someone to (p.282) provide protection against any threat or to avoid any harm perpetrated by the same members of the group” (Cruz, “Central American Maras,” 381–382).
(4.) For the problem of shaky state sovereignty in postcolonial societies, see Hansen and Stepputat, Sovereign Bodies. In Guatemala since the end of the civil war, criminality has steadily escalated. The state has continually failed to adequately respond, but not for lack of some officials trying. Under the direction of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz (2010–2014), the prosecution rate of reported violent crimes has more than doubled, from 5 to 10 percent (McDonald, “Caging in Central America”). In 2014, however, she was dismissed from the Guatemalan government because of her support for the prosecution of former president Efrain Rios Montt for genocide.
(13.) Literally, the plebians, the common people, a term for fellow gang members of the same rank.
(16.) In 2007 the national civil police received nearly six hundred reports of homes abandoned to the threat of extortion across Guatemala City. Given the uncounted threats that victims never report for fear of retaliation from the perpetrator(s), it is likely that the actual number is far higher.
(18.) As Saunders-Hastings has shown, government and vigilante efforts to police against extortion have had mixed results. In May 2012, for example, the Guatemalan military conducted a widely publicized invasion of the mara-dominated neighborhood El Limon. A week earlier a fifteen-year-old had shot and killed a respected community police officer. For seven years the officer had maintained a kind of détente with Solo Raperos of Barrio18, managing after-school soccer tournaments and other programs. Suspecting local police of collaborating with the gang, the army never consulted them about the raid. With media cameras in tow, they rounded up several dozen low-level gang associates—no one with any real power—and “occupied” the neighborhood with round-the-clock patrols. While the gang made efforts to keep its operations less conspicuous, six months later its extortion rackets continued unhindered. Residents (p.283) continued to pay la renta—and refused to report the extortionists—because they knew that the army must eventually withdraw, and the media cycle would spin on. But no matter what, the gang would still be there, eager to punish even the slightest betrayal.
(20.) Arturo Aguilar, interview with author, Guatemala City, July 7, 2013.
(21.) The most powerful of these organizations is CACIF, Comité Coordinador de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras (Coordinating Committee for Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations).
(24.) For similar processes in Brazil, see Huggins, “Urban Violence and Police Privatization,”
(26.) The meteoric rise of both extortion rackets and private security corporations exposes the ironies of the tax debate in Guatemala. To provide a little background, the 1996 peace accords mandated a progressive tax scheme meant to help the struggling Guatemalan economy rebound from thirty-six years of civil war. This never happened. (Sridhar, “Tax Reform”). Guatemala continues to vie with Haiti for the lowest tax revenues in the Americas, suggesting that many Guatemalans do not pay their taxes. Indeed, elite arguments against raising tax rates hinge on the claim that the poor simply will not pay. Clearly, however, large portions of the urban poor make regular payments for their own survival and security—just not to the state.
(27.) Isabel Aguilar, interview with author, Guatemala City, September 12, 2011.
(29.) As a security analyst for the Guatemalan prison system stated in an interview, “[T]he police and the media are too quick to connect every new murder, decapitation, and quartering to extortion when there is often no evidence whatsoever” (Guatemala City, May 23, 2013).
(30.) See Bayart, Ellis, and Hibou, Criminalization of the State; and Comaroff and Comaroff, Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, for the wide variety of counterfeit crimes committed throughout the postcolonial world. As the Comaroffs note, “Revenues are … routinely raised by impersonating the state: by putting on counterfeit uniforms, bearing phony identity documents, and deploying other fake accouterments of authority” (17).
(31.) This is not the same “El Nica” as the character in the story that precedes this chapter, “The Prisoners and the Cascabel.” Many nicknames are linked to nationality.
(33.) Ibid. Rumors and more rumors. Many leftist Guatemalans suspect that actors connected to the military and loyal to current president Perez Molina orchestrated bus attacks to undermine his predecessor’s administration.
(p.284) (34.) Even so, extortion has also become a useful tactic for union busting, threatening human rights activists, and stymieing political organization from below. Maras are inevitably implicated—but whether they act at the behest of, say, maquila owners intent on taking out union leadership; are part of some other masquerade; or are wholly uninvolved, is never certain. In these situations, the blurred lines among personal survival, political violence, and criminal acts often disappear. For example, maquila bosses sometimes gather employees suspected of having ties to maras and threaten to fire them if any unions are formed. Then, as one activist told Americas Quarterly, “[I]t’s up to (the mareros) to see what they have to do (to keep their jobs)” (Delpech, “Guate-Mara”).
(35.) The flip side of all this fear is clumsy, reactive violence, which can have tragic consequences. For example, in La Terminal, a transport and wholesale market hub in the heart of Guatemala City, the vigilante group Los Angeles de Justicia (The Angels of Justice), employed by merchants to maintain security, executed a deaf woman accused of extortion. A local merchant told me that while extortion was a big problem, he wasn’t sure if justice had been served. The deaf often communicate using handwritten messages, the same means by which extortionists often deliver demands to their victims. “Perhaps the Angels got confused,” he said, laughing.
(37.) Narco-corridos memorialize the lifestyle and exploits of the Mexican narcotics trade.