Argentina has dismantled a gang focused on extorting taxi drivers at Buenos Aires’ main bus station, the second such incident in 2019. This raises fears that the taxi extortion racket, most commonly associated with Guatemala or Honduras, may have found a new home.
In late September, police in Buenos Aires dismantled a criminal organization extorting taxi drivers at the city’s Retiro bus station, reported La Nación. The gang demanded between $300 and $500 per week from both regular taxi drivers and those using ride-sharing applications such as Uber if they wanted to operate from the bus station. Those who tried to work without paying these criminal gangs were frequently beaten and their vehicles were damaged, according to the ruling by Martín Yadarola, the judge overseeing the case.
The investigation began after police received an anonymous tip in April 2019 from a driver at the bus terminal. A detective from the automotive crimes division of Argentina’s federal police went undercover as a taxi driver. He was soon targeted by the gang, who stopped him from picking up passengers at the bus station, and noticed that drivers who had paid the extortion fees had their cars marked with a sticker on the rear window.
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This was the second case of a taxi mafia in Buenos Aires this year. In February, police dismantled a similar gang operating at the capital’s Ezeiza international airport, reported Clarín. One of the nine detainees was an employee of Aeropuertos Argentina 2000, a private company that operates several airports in Argentina, including the one at Ezeiza. He had been illegally handing out contactless cards so they could enter the airport parking lot without paying any fees. The authorities also discovered the gang had maintained detailed records on drivers operating at the airport and how much money had been collected from each of them.
InSight Crime Analysis
Taxi extortion in Argentina appears to be in its nascent stage, with the gang operating directly at the bus station and airport and physically marking participating cars. In the likes of Guatemala or Honduras, such direct shake-downs are usually avoided for being too blatant. Criminals have grown more sophisticated, using public transport workers to get others to pay up or even simply using messaging apps to collect.
Extortion in the transport sector has been a go-to source of revenue for gangs such as MS13 in Guatemala, where being a public bus driver carries major risks.
This is a thriving criminal economy where, in 2017, gangs earned about $70 million a year through extortion. Moreover, around 3,100 bus drivers were murdered in Guatemala between 2001 and 2018, according to the Association of Widows of Bus Drivers (Asociación de Viudas de Piloto – AVP).
In Honduras, MS13 has gone from merely shaking down drivers to owning and controlling fleets of motorcycle taxis that function like cooperatives, reported InSight Crime. Taxi owners pay $40-$80 per month to operate on routes owned by the gang. In El Salvador, the same group has operated a sophisticated business model where it extorted money from buses in San Salvador, and used it to legally acquire its own buses, according to an investigation by InSight Crime.
But murders and destruction of vehicles related to extortion have been seen elsewhere. Two buses were robbed and burnt in Mexico City in August after workers failed to meet their extortion demands. Earlier in July, two drivers were killed.
For now, fear tactics in Argentina by extortion gangs have been limited to roughing up drivers and damaging vehicles. And the police may now be on the lookout for such crimes after breaking up two gangs mere months apart. But the regional precedent of how violent these extortion rackets can become looms large.