Communities Fear a Link Between Extortion and Tourism

Yesterday, posted an article about gangs extorting tourists in the Jiquilisco Bay, specifically in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula.

The article reports that police have investigated three cases of extortion and arrested six adults and a minor. The gangs seem to be stopping tourists and delivery trucks when they slow down for speed bumps on the road through the Bajo Lempa and out the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and charge them between $5 and 25 to continue

Gang activity has increased dramatically in the region over the past few weeks, with a greater presence in El Zamorano, La Canoa, Isla de Mendez, San Juan del Gozo, and Corral de Mulas, as well as smaller communities where they have not had much of a presence in the past. Police estimate that there are between 60-90 gang members now living in the region.

The article also reports that l gangs are intimidating locals by walking around and even eating in restaurants with automatic rifles and shotguns slung over their shoulders. Police confirm that gangs have at least 3 M-16 rifles in the region.

The reports of extortion and increased gang presence are already affecting small, locally operated restaurants and hotels that serve the region’s small tourism industry. The number of Salvadorans who visit the area has already begun to drop off. As news of the arrests and extortion activities increase, traffic in the region is likely to decrease even more.

Community leaders say gangs have told residents they won’t bother them. But there are two warring gangs in the region and people are worried about getting caught in the crossfire. One NGO worker said he is not worried about the gang members from the community where he works – he knows them and their families, and they have never bothered him. He is concerned about being caught in the middle if rival gangs come looking them.

Local leaders and parents are also concerned about the influence of the gangs on their youth. Communities on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula are economically depressed and youth often lack access to education. Sometimes access is not a question of distance, rather an issue of getting to and from school safely. Youth that have finished the sixth grade are often unable to continue studying and lack job opportunities, making them prime candidates for gang recruitment.

There have been gangs in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula for a while, but their numbers and activities have been limited. The rather sudden influx of gang members from other areas and their brazen show of arms have led some in the region to believe the issue goes beyond extortion of cars along the main road. Several people are concerned that those with an interest in large-scale tourism are using the gangs to destabilize the region’s growing opposition to their development plans. Others fear the gangs and extortion are an effort to drive off the small-scale, local restaurants and hotels that serve Salvadorans who visit the zone. This will make room for larger, well-financed tourism projects that will serve North Americans and Europeans.

This would not be the first time that gangs have been used to shake up a social movement or influence public opinion. In June/July 2009 alleged gang members in Cabañas killed anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera. Other alleged gang members were involved in the murders of Ramiro Rivera, Dora Alicia Sorto, others, in Cabañas later that year.

At this point there is no way to know who is supplying the automatic weapons or whether the influx of alleged gang activities is related to tourism and an effort to destabilized organizational efforts. But residents throughout the region understand that this is certainly a possibility the have to consider.

3 thoughts on “Communities Fear a Link Between Extortion and Tourism”

  1. Thanks for the great analysis, as always. In addition to the murder of anti-mining activists in Cabañas, there were also rumors during the recent presidential campaign that the right was stoking gang violence to weaken Sánchez Cerén (and Funes’s legacy) and improve Quijano’s mano dura appeal. But then, as in Cabañas, and apparently now in the Bahia de Jiquilisco region, we don’t have much evidence. While it’s possible that powerful political and economic actors have ties to certain gang leaders and can dispatch them at will (we do have evidence of that in Colombia), it’s likely that the gangs, constantly seeking to expand their territory and profit, have come to this part of the country for totally self-interested reasons. The short-term effect may be to drive off small businesses and clear physical space for large scale tourism, but an increase in gang presence in the region would diminish its attractiveness to the market for large-scale tourism: North Americans and Europeans, which would be counterproductive.

  2. Thanks Owen! It’s possible gangs are acting on their own to expand territory and so on, but folks on the ground think its more complex than that – and their reasons are sound. The point about the long-term affects of gang activities on large-scale tourism is important. While it’s bad for small businesses now, the long-term impacts can be contained by tourism police, gated resorts, expansion of the corral de mulas airstrip, etc… a few cases of extortion and some relatively low-level violence is minor compared to other parts of the country. And that’s a bigger question. If El Salvador is going to build the economy around tourism, the government will have to address the security problem once and for all. Its worth noting that the gangs aren’t the first group to show up on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula with automatic weapons since the end of the civil war. At least one of the big investors that has been collecting real estate in the region travels around with a large entourage of heavily armed body guards. Locals say there is no reason for having so many guns other than intimidating locals… or maybe he is engaged in less savory activities that would put him in danger.

    1. Good point on gated resorts and tourism police. Deep pockets can afford to mitigate the impact, perceived and real, of a surge in crime on their investments. As for the bigger question, that’s a toughy, right? It would be great to read a follow up post on community responses to the recent presence of gangs in the area. What community-level public safety organizing is possible, given that the central government seems inept at addressing the nationwide security problem (although I try to be optimistic that the new Administration will respond to the problem better than previous governments)..

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