Extortion Rings Run From Colombia’s Prisons

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With talk in Medellin about creating a cashless public transport system and moves in Bogota towards installing cell phone signal jammers in prison, Colombian authorities are considering increasingly dramatic measures in order to combat extortion. This is one of the most lucrative yet under-reported criminal enterprises in Colombia, and while official statistics signal that extortion is rising in cities, InSight considers these numbers to be far too low.

Government agency Fondelibertad, which compiles statistics related to security issues, reported a total of 1,120 extortion cases in 2010. This is similar to the numbers reported by the police anti-kidnapping unit known by its Spanish acronym GAULA, which registered approximately 1,300 cases last year.

However, most extortion-related cases — especially those involving small payments from middle and lower-class business owners, popuarly known as ‘vacunas’ — go unreported due to distrust of the local authorities. As a result, small-scale businesses, most commonly transportation companies, street vendors peddling cell phone minutes, and unlicensed salesmen running market stands, are most heavily impacted by so-called “micro” extortion, which has become a significant source of income for low-level gangs.

What is also clear from Fondelibertad’s data is that urban areas, including Medellin (with 137 cases reported in 2010), Bogota (78) and Cali (47) appear to be the most affected, or at least register the greatest number of complaints from larger companies.

In Medellin, extortion is believed to make up a significant part of the criminal portfolio of the Oficina de Envigado, so much that Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera spoke of implementing a cashless public transport system in the city during a visit last weekend. The city’s buses are frequently coerced into paying “micro” extortions to street gangs pledging loyalty to the Oficina’s rival factions.

“The logic of micro-extortion is the size. It’s so small that people think it’s better to pay up, and most costly, shameful and risky to denounce it, ” he said in an interview with Medellin newspaper El Colombiano. “But if we can make it so that [gangs] can no longer have that daily payment, and instead they have to charge by month, the extortion goes up and then more people start thinking that it’s better to denounce it.”

Another common phenomenon is extortion schemes conducted from prison. As recently highlighted in a feature by newspaper El Tiempo, police have sent undercover agents into penitentiaries like Picaleña, in Ibague, Tolima, in order to collect intelligence about extortion rings run by imprisoned ex-guerrillas, paramilitaries, or common criminals.

As recounted by one undercover officer, Picaleña ran a highly organized extortion ring.

“Each cell was an office. One was the guy who would call, another guy handled finances, and a third took care of the agenda,” he told El Tiempo.

In the most common scenario, prisoners use cell phones to call family, business, or random contacts found in a telephone directory and demand payments, sometimes claiming to be members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).

Extortion is so prevalent in Colombia’s three largest prisons, which are Picaleña in Ibague, La Picota, and La Modelo in Bogota, that authorities are currently considering installing cell phone signal blockers. As El Tiempo reports, Colombia’s national prison authority, known by its acronym INPEC, is currently testing out the technology in these three penitenciaries.

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