How Extortion Bleeds Profits from Medellin Bus Drivers

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In many parts of Latin America, bus drivers are under threat from local gangs who demand regular extortion payments. Refusal to pay brings swift retribution, as seen with the murder of yet another driver in Medellin, Colombia’s second city.

Freddy Ramirez Jaramillo was reportedly the sixth bus driver to be killed in the Medellin metropolitan area so far this year. During his funeral on September 12, a convoy of 100 vehicles, including taxis and buses, drove through the neighborhood where he lived, beeping and waving streamers to show solidarity. The route that Ramirez used to drive was inactive for several days, while the 63 buses employed by his transport company suspended their services in protest.

An Invisible Problem

Bus drivers say that the police only pay attention to the problem of “vacunas,” or extortion taxes, when one of them is gunned down and transport comes to a halt in one of the city’s most peripheral, gang-ridden neighborhoods. The rest of the time, vacunas are just a daily part of running a transport company in Medellin. Before new bus drivers sign their contract, along with being briefed on insurance and gas payments, they are pulled aside by management and warned about the daily quotas they must pay to street gangs in certain neighborhoods along their route. “It’s part of the induction process,” one bus driver told InSight Crime.

“Everybody knows that this is what’s going on,” added the leader of an association of small transport companies in Medellin. “We’re the ones feeding the gangs. It’s a problem in the whole city.”

However, the problem is only made visible when a transport worker is killed, the association leader said.

According to transport workers, bus companies previously only had to pay a single daily extortion fee for each bus route. Now, they say, they are being forced to pay multiple vacunas for the routes that pass through the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. In Comuna 16, known as Belen, there are a few routes in which drivers must pay between four and six vacunas to complete the journey safely. In Comuna 7 (Robledo), one route has four vacunas; in Comuna 5 (Castilla), each bus pays between two to three vacunas to enter and exit the neighborhood. Buses are attacked and burnt if these payments are not made, and drivers threatened.

These extortion payments add up. The fee charged by street gangs depends on the neighborhood, but it is usually no more than 50,000 pesos (about $25). Considering that the average daily income from a bus is rarely more than 350,000 pesos (about $195), if that bus has to pay four different vacunas of 50,000 pesos (about $28) just to complete its route, that only leaves 150,000 pesos (about $83) of earnings for the day.

Under the Oficina

Medellin’s street gangs, known as “combos,” didn’t always have the power to charge multiple extortion taxes per bus route. According to transport workers interviewed by InSight Crime, in the “good old days” there were serious consequences if a combo tried to rob a bus, or charge one vacuna tax too many. Between 2002 and 2008, the system was controlled by the city’s biggest organized criminal group, the Oficina de Envigado. The Oficina handled sophisticated criminal operations in Medellin, namely the international trafficking of drugs and weapons. Meanwhile, the combos provided their services to the Oficina, acting as collectors, hitmen, and retail drug distributors, among other jobs.

During this period, reports of criminal activity — from extortion to homicide — reached historic lows in Medellin. Such was the authority of the leader of the Oficina, Diego Murillo Bejarano, alias “Don Berna.” The Oficina, working as part of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), was so disciplined about collecting extortion payments that it even demanded a daily fee from the street cleaners who polished the bus windows: one fifth of their total daily income, which usually amounted to 25,000 pesos (about $13). Combos were barred from charging more than one extortion fee per bus route.

However, the Oficina was weakened by internal battles that followed Don Berna’s extradition in 2008, and the number of vacunas charged to bus drivers multiplied as Medellin’s underworld fragmented. Without Don Berna’s central authority, the Oficina split into rival factions, one controlled by Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano,” and another by Erick Vargas, alias “Sebastian.” Both have since been captured.

With the turf wars, neighborhood gangs have fragmented, each one intent on protecting their territory — even if it is only a couple of city blocks. Medellin has been divided up by more and more “fronteras invisibles” — invisible frontiers — that mark the limitations of the combos’ fiefdoms.Combos Belen Revised

Bus drivers must now pay a vacuna for every invisible frontier crossed during their route. “The more combos you’ve got, the more vacunas we have to pay,” observed one bus company owner. And as Ramirez’s murder shows, drivers who don’t pay are risking their lives.

Super Combos

However, rising extortion is not only a product of the fragmentation of street gangs. Some combos have become so wealthy and powerful from Medellin’s local drug trade that they now see themselves as independent, and no longer take orders from the upper ranks of the Oficina. These “super combos,” which the police have dubbed ODINs (Organizaciones Delincuenciales Integradas al Narcotrafico – Delinquent Organizations Integrated with Drug Trafficking) are scattered across the city (see map, above), and are keen to protect their territory and build up their finances. 

The neighborhood of Belen, for example, has few combos compared to Medellin’s northeast, but is home to one “super combo.” This helps explain why Belen is one of the neighborhoods most affected by bus extortion, to the point that several buses had to temporarily cancel their routes last February. According to a bus company owner based in Belen, one of his drivers must pay six vacunas, each a different amount, in order to complete the route through Belen’s most troubled neighborhood, Altavista, coming to 220,000 pesos (about $122) a week. The street gangs collect the tax and must pay part of it to whatever higher criminal authority controls the neighborhood, be it a “super combo” or a remaining faction of the Oficina.

A Cashless System

With some 7,500 buses and minibuses working the Medellin metropolitan area, the transport sector is an attractive source of profit for the combos. The money is collected each day, although transport workers say there is rarely a set time or place for the payment. Usually the combos deploy their most youthful recruits — kids from the neighborhood — to collect the extortion tax, as minors are less likely to attract suspicion from police. The youths board the bus to collect the money, or wait for the driver to hand it through the window. In some neighborhoods, part of the extortion tax is reportedly paid to the neighborhood police force, to keep the system running without interruption.

Medellin is planning to switch over to a cashless transportation system, something which has already been implemented in other countries struggling with violence and bus extortion, like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The new system will reportedly include a smart card system, possibly integrated with Medellin’s metro. But bus company owners worry that they will have to pay for the changes themselves, including implementing technology on buses to read smart cards. This will be tough, they say, considering how far their profit margins have been driven down by extortion.

And given how far the vacuna is an accepted part of doing business in Colombia — from the bus system to the neighborhood grocery store and large multinationals — few transport workers think that the problem will be solved with a transport smart card. One bus company owner said that a cashless bus system would only cause the combos to change the way they collect their vacunas. “It just means they’ll come by once a month directly to company offices, asking for a check, rather than collecting the cash every day,” he predicted.

The drivers and bus company owners interviewed for this story asked that their names not be used, for their safety; they also asked that no identifying details be published about which gangs threaten which bus routes.

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