Guatemala arrests dozens of gang members in raids

More than 120 raids were carried out by nearly 300 law enforcement officers and prosecutors (AFP Photo/Johsn Ordonez) (AFP/File)

Guatemala City (AFP) - Security forces on Monday launched raids on one of the biggest gangs in Guatemala, arresting 72 suspected members of a cell specializing in extortion, officials said.

More than 120 raids were carried out by nearly 300 law enforcement officers and prosecutors in the south, center and northeast of the country.

"The operation is focused on fighting the scourge of extortion," the chief state prosecutor, Thelma Aldana, told a news conference.

The raids targeted members of the notorious Barrio 18 gang who formed an ring known as "Solo para Locos" ("Only for Crazies") that strongarmed public transport companies plying routes between the capital and southern coastal areas, according to the public ministry.

Aldana said the extortion cell earned nearly $400,000 a year from its illegal activities and was linked to 30 murders.

Travel on buses in Guatemala has become increasingly risky in recent years because of the rampant extortion.

A spokeswoman for the public ministry said the raids on Monday turned up weapons and ammunition, grenades and other explosives, cellphones, and cash.

She said the criminals involved usually intimidated or launched armed attacks against bus companies. The investigation leading to the arrests started a year ago.

Those arrested were charged and put in jail pending trial.

The raids took place in the central province of Guatemala, in the southern provinces of Retalhuleu, Escuintla and Santa Rosa and in Izabal, northeast of the capital.

Guatemala forms Central America's infamous "Northern Triangle" along with neighboring Honduras and El Salvador. The three countries are prey to vicious gangs that murder, extort and deal in drugs.

Some 6,000 people die in Guatemala every year in violence attributed to the gangs.