Gangs and criminal organizations in Central America continue to seek means of adapting to COVID-19 while communities look to build resilience to its effects. The aim of this report is to contribute to the understanding of extortion in an evolving context as pandemic-related mobility restrictions are enforced and lifted in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama.

The report identifies the evolving role of women in gang schemes and dynamics; explores criminal structures in Panama and their relationship with extortion; and highlights trends among extortion practices as they shift to other criminal activities such as large-scale and local trafficking
of cannabis and cocaine.

Key points

  • Although women have traditionally been only peripherally involved in extortion (as romantic partners and payment collectors), their role has now become more prominent (ringleaders and hired assassins). Public policies are required to prevent and prosecute this involvement.
  • Extortion in Panama tends to involve a form of loan sharking, known in the region as gota a gota loans. However, the existence of more than 150 gangs and criminal organizations in the country has led to a rapid growth in territorial extortion.
  • In northern Central American countries, drug dealing and trafficking appear to be the gangs’ alternative strategy given the drop in extortion revenues due to the pandemic.
  • The monitoring and analysis of information on drug trafficking and extortion by security institutions, as well as gangs’ flexibility to adapt to mobility restric-tions, have uncovered new opportunities for illicit income.