BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Jorge Espinosa, a cattle rancher and veterinarian in the department of Meta, is worried the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will knock on his door.
From 2008 to 2010, Espinosa’s father, who worked on the same land, was forced to pay 20% of his monthly income to the terrorist group to prevent it from damaging his property – or worse.
“We had to pay the FARC in order to continue our cattle ranch operations,” Espinosa said. “During that time there was no military presence or strategy to protect cattle ranchers from being extorted.”
Espinosa said the policies of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and predecessor Álvaro Uribe helped stop extortions, but he’s noticed a recent increase in the FARC’s demanding “vacunas” from farmers and business owners.
“I know of colleagues in other departments who’ve noticed members of the FARC prowling around again to see what commercial activities people are involved in,” Espinosa said.
The terrorists could be on the verge of relying more heavily on extortion, which it has been using to raise funds since it began fighting the state in the 1960s, because government-coordinated raids have dealt heavy blows to the guerrilla’s narco- and weapons-trafficking profit streams.
Extortion not only cripples victims, but it hurts the economy. If someone targeted by the FARC for extortion refuses to pay, the consequences are severe, said Leandro Llano, an expert on the Colombian conflict at the Universidad Javeriana.
“Basically, it entails charging a percentage of revenues from a merchant, business or multinational corporation in exchange for ‘protection’ from the terrorist group so the person can continue to conduct their business to avoid the ‘chance’ of any ‘unexpected accident,’” Llano said.
The FARC made 1,805 extortion threats nationwide in 2011 after making 1,309 the year earlier, according to the Colombian National Police.
The rise can be attributed to the FARC’s claim it will cease kidnappings, meaning it won’t be in a position to collect ransoms. However, extortion allows the terrorist group to compensate for the lost revenue, said Manuel Rendón, a political analyst at the Universidad del Rosario.
“[The FARC’s] true political maneuver in announcing an end to kidnappings means it’s going back to extortions,” he said. “The risk of returning to this practice is the possible consequence it might have on foreign investment. The war strategy and the military force used against the FARC by authorities created a larger presence of the National Army in areas that were historically extortion hotbeds for the FARC, such as the departments of Meta and Putumayo. Therefore, extortions dropped off quite a bit and [the FARC] turned to profiting from narco- trafficking and other illegal means.”
There are no official figures documenting how much money the FARC generates through extortion.
But the price they charge can be steep – just ask Alfredo Prieto.
His family of potato farmers was forced to sell their land in the department of Boyacá a decade ago because the FARC demanded Prieto pay 15% of his monthly income for “protection.”
“[The guerrillas] told us that the FARC were responsible for protection in the area – not the Army – and if we wanted to do business we had to pay them every month for protection,” he said. “We are peaceful people and do not believe in violence. Colombia is a free country and no one [should be] extorted. We decided we were not going to support the FARC in any way. We thought paying 15% was unfair, considering we were the ones who worked for the money. Fortunately, we were able to sell our land to start all over again with a new life in Bogotá. However, I know about other neighbors in the area who had to pay because they had no other financial means to survive.”
Authorities fear an escalation in extortions will weaken investments, jeopardizing the economy.
Proexport, an organization that promotes tourism, foreign investment and Colombian exports, reported foreign companies invested US$14.8 billion in 2011 in the Andean nation, up from US$2.43 billion in 2000, indicating Santos’and Uribe’s administrations were effective in weakening the FARC’s grip.
“Any company that pays extortion money to the FARC criminals will be expelled from the country,” Santos said in April 2010.
In June of that year, the government was poised to expel a multinational corporation for allegedly paying money to the FARC so the terrorist group would allow them to work in peace.
Still, those in the mining and oil sectors said the government must do more to prevent extortions.
“The kidnapping and demands for ransom traditionally have been among the main risks for [those sectors] in Colombia. However, in recent years kidnapping has decreased,” said James Lockhart-Smith, head analyst for Latin America with Maplecroft, a global risk analysis firm that carries out reports and consults on matters of security for corporations such as Ecopetrol and U.S.-based international coal mining company Drummond. “The main problem now is not kidnapping, but extortion. We are in an uncomfortable position.”
Gustavo Wilches Chaux, an environmentalist and specialist in mining legislation in Colombia, warns about the cyclical nature of how the FARC gets money.
“A few years ago there was a major wave of kidnappings – now the FARC says it has ‘stopped,’” he said. “Then during another period, there was a wave of extorting merchants and the FARC has started doing that again. The government has to understand the FARC has parallel financial systems to get money, and at this point everything indicates they will start making extortion demands from cattle ranchers, miners or multinational organizations who thought Colombia had overcome this problem.”
Álvaro Garzón, a security specialist for Drummond, said large corporations are taking action.
“These multinational corporations will not have any security problems if the extortion cases resurface because they are working hand-in-hand with the Army,” he said. “It is true there is fear that new threats of this type might exist. In terms of security, the areas where the company’s activities take place are secured by government entities.”
Garzón, however, said smaller businesses face greater challenges to protect themselves.
“It is a bit more difficult since the authorities can’t be everywhere,” he said. “But for sure, if they report possible extortion attempts, the government will be present.”