In parts of Central America, extortion has become so endemic that it is now a feature of the daily socio-economic life of citizens, businesses and the fabric of the state. The pervasive impunity and weakness of state institutions to combat extortion have meant that, for many central American communities, extortion, or the threat of it, has become a normalized facet of life – a form of violent, omnipresent, criminally enforced taxation – and its effects are far-reaching on a personal, economic and societal level.

For the violent, armed street gangs that continually threaten and harass communities in the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) – a region that is the main focus of this report – the extortion market is the main security threat to those countries and one of the principal sources of criminal income. These gangs have bred a criminal regional economy on such a scale that extortion forms a sizeable tranche of some Northern Triangle countries’ GDP. The revenue from extortion has provided some gangs in the region with a solid economic operating base, and at the same time allowed them to diversify into other criminal enterprises, including drug trafficking, and human smuggling and trafficking, which means that they have consolidated their influence over broader transnational organized-crime networks operating in the region. Meanwhile, extortion revenue is laundered through investments in formal businesses, extending the gangs’ economic stranglehold over the communities they target.