Colombia Seeks to Contain Extortion by Doubling Sentences

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Colombia, suffering explosive growth in extortion demands, is seeking to almost double sentences for those convicted of the crime.

In a legislative project to be brought before Congress, the Colombian government plans to almost double the maximum sentence for extortion from 18 to 32 years. The minimum sentence for those convicted of extortion would jump from 8 to 16 years.

Some estimates have put the annual criminal income from extortion at over $1 billion. According to the specialized anti-kidnapping and anti-extortion unit of the police, the GAULA, small businesses pay between $250 and $2500 a month, depending on their earnings. Even many street vendors have to pay extortion fees of up to a dollar a day to be allowed to operate.

If the law is passed, it would bring the sentencing for extortion into the same range as that for murder. The average conviction for premeditated murder in Colombia is around 25 years.

InSight Crime Analysis

Extortion used to be the preserve of Marxist rebels, who targeted the big national and multinational corporations. Today, while the rebels are still deeply involved in extortion, they have been overtaken by the new generation of drug trafficking groups, known as the BACRIM (from the goverment’s description of the groups as “bandas criminals”). The profile of the victim has also changed dramatically. The extortion of big companies and multi-nationals has actually fallen, while “micro extortion” has undergone explosive growth, with most victims now local shop owners and small businesses.

Broadly speaking, the rebels impose most of their extortion demands in rural areas, or the smaller urban centers, although there are indications that the guerrillas are seeking to expand their extortion activities into the major cities. However in the top three urban centers of Colombia — the capital Bogota, Medellin and Cali — extortion rackets are predominantly run by local street gangs or the BACRIM.

The introduction of this legislation is perhaps a knee-jerk reaction by the government, which is fighting the general perception that the security situation is worsening, even as it engages in peace talks with the Marxist insurgency. What is clear is that crime, particularly in the urban centers, is increasing, and extortion is leading the charge.

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