"Extortion is like life insurance. If you don't pay up you get killed"
By Anastasia Moloney
SAN SALVADOR, May 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Children travelling alone and mothers with infants in arms look forlorn and weary as they step off buses at the end of a 17-hour journey from Mexico to El Salvador - the very country they had tried to escape.
Up to eight buses arrive daily at the main migration centre in El Salvador's capital, carrying scores of Salvadorans who have been deported by the Mexican authorities as they tried to make their way north to the United States.
At a newly-built reception centre, children draw pictures in a cozy play area, and free maize pancakes, phone calls and medical check-ups are on offer.
But no one wants to be here. Clutching plastic bags with their meagre belongings, families wait to be interviewed by officials and ponder their next move. Many will rest briefly before attempting the journey all over again.
Salvadorans have always emigrated north in search of better paid jobs. But as the country struggles to contain ferocious gang violence, it is the threat of attack and the burden of extortion rackets that are pushing more of its citizens to flee, and their businesses to close.
"El Salvador and also Guatemala and Honduras present conflict-like levels of violence and criminality," said Francesca Fontanini, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
"People in these areas live in fear of violent death, becoming the victims of a crime, or suffering persecution and abuse, and this is causing increasing numbers of people to flee their homes."
A February report by the Technological University of San Salvador showed that of 747 Salvadaron migrants surveyed, 42 percent said they left their homes because of violence - compared to just five percent who cited that reason in 2013.
Among the different forms of gang intimidation and violence, extortion is largely invisible and the most poorly documented.
Gangs prey on both rich and poor with demands backed by death threats. Many business owners, from hawkers to tycoons, must hand over a slice of revenues, pushing them to the brink.
One deported woman, who got off a bus with her young son, said her decision to leave home started with a phone call she received in January. The caller, a gang member, demanded up to $400 every month in extortion payments.
"Where we will get that kind of money from? I can't pay that," said the woman who did not give her name for fear of reprisals.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," she said, adding this had been her third attempt to reach the United States.
SOURCE OF INCOME
There are an estimated 70,000 gang members in El Salvador. The country is one of the world's deadliest nations, largely due to their turf wars and shoot-outs with police.
Both of the two most powerful armed gangs - Calle 18 and their rivals the Mara Salvatrucha - run extortion rackets worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Experts say racketeering is a leading source of income for the gangs, known as maras, and jailed gang members control a chunk of it from behind bars.
Extortion money is used by the maras to run their criminal organisations, buy weapons and support the families of jailed gang members.
According to a 2015 poll by the University Institute of Public Opinion in San Salvador, nearly one in every four Salvadorans said they had been a direct victim of extortion.
No one, even a schoolchild, is exempt from the protection tax, known locally as "la renta".
Joaquin Orellana, a teacher and secretary of the teacher's union, SIMEDUCO, said children working for gangs have to collect a daily "renta" of 10 to 25 cents from each of their classmates.
And it's not just the poor and vulnerable who are targeted. The middle classes, in gated communities in San Salvador's affluent neighourhoods, are also victims of the crime.
Fed up with the cost and violence extortion brings, some business leaders have decided to stand up to the gangs.
"Extortion is like life insurance," Catalino Miranda, a straight-talking bus company owner, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at his office overlooking a bus terminal in a grubby neighbourhood. Outside two men stand guard with AK-47s.
He estimates El Salvador's bus drivers and fare collectors are forced to pay gangs from $18 to $26 million a year.
"If you don't pay up you get killed," he said, a handgun on the table in front of him and a rifle on the floor.
Around 1,000 drivers and conductors have been murdered in gang-related killings over the last decade, he said.
Next to his office, staff monitor television screens showing real-time footage from cameras installed inside his buses as part of a $1.2 million security system he set up four years ago.
Yet despite phone calls demanding payments, and three attempts on his life, Miranda said he has never paid the gangs.
"The calls have now stopped. The only thing that's going to sound here is my 7mm handgun," he said.
An hour's drive from the capital towards the volcanic sand beaches of El Salvador's Pacific coast, another businessman, hotel owner Ernesto Vilanova, is also speaking out.
"Extortion is the biggest blow that we small businesses have received," said Vilanova, who heads the National Council for Small Businesses (CONAPES).
"It has forced some businesses to close, others to go bankrupt. Owners have left the country and people have been killed. The sector is in crisis," he said.
Nearly 80 percent of all informal and small businesses, like family-owned stores and supermarkets, pay extortion fees to the maras, Vilanova said. Such demands force up to three small businesses to close every month, shoring the emigration wave.
Payments range from $5 a week for a street seller to $30,000 a month for big businesses, with an extra "Christmas bonus".
Vilanova says he received a menacing phone call last month, with the caller demanding a one-off payment of $20,000.
"When I got the call I was alone and I was afraid as anyone would be," he said. "The guy kept saying you have to protect your family, right?"
Vilanova said he phoned the national police chief to report the crime and within days a suspect was arrested and jailed.
"I don't carry around a gun anymore to defend myself. My weapon is to denounce the crime," he said.
EXTORTION FROM PRISON
Police authorities say around half of all extortion payments are ordered from behind bars.
Vilanova said a common tactic is for a teenage mara to enter a shop and tell the owner he found a phone on the floor.
"The mara will say: I'll leave it with you and maybe someone will come for it. Shortly afterwards, the phone will ring and the shopkeeper will answer. Often the call comes from a prison and the caller demands an extortion payment," he said.
To cut them off from their networks, 300 jailed gang leaders were transferred in April to maximum security prisons where the government said they would be held in isolation.
But despite the government's crackdown and the efforts of a few brave citizens to counter gang crime, the demands for cash keep coming, and the exodus continues.
Back at the migration centre, the deported woman who fled gang extortion is fearful about returning home.
"We'll go back to our neighbourhood and maybe they will kill us," she said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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