Colombian National Police break up extortion gangs
By Dialogo October 07, 2013
BOGOTA – Since Jan. 1 2013, Colombian National Police have broken up more than 75 alleged extortion gangs which took more than $10 million from victims in four of the country’s largest cities.
The Ministry of Defense operation, which began in 2012, was led by the anti-extortion and anti-kidnapping unit of the National Police. The unit is known as the “Gaula,” and the effort was an operation called “Green Heart.”
“We’ve broken the back of these extortion structures and in the last year alone have captured more than 2,200 criminal suspects in cities like Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Baranquilla,” said Gen. Humberto Guatibonza, the leader of the Gaula.
As part of the “Green Heart” plan, National Police plan on eliminating the estimated 200 micro-extortion gangs which operate in Colombia “before they spread to entire departments,” according to Guatibonza.
Extortion gangs target cities
Extortion gangs operate primarily in cities and mostly target small business owners, bus drivers, and taxi operators, according to Francisco Lloreda, a special presidential security adviser.
“Many of these crimes now affect our major cities more than the countryside,” Lloreda said.
“These criminal groups target low-income businesses, including shopkeepers and bus drivers, in cities like Bogota and Medellin but the biggest issue we’re facing now is that still not enough people report the problem to the police,” Lloreda said.
The number of extortions reported to police throughout Colombia has risen from 1,373 in 2009 to 2,316 in 2012, according to the Ministry of Defense.
About 84 percent of the extortions are committed by people who are not associated with organized crime, according to Lloreda.
About 11 percent of the crimes are committed by operatives with the Bacrim gang, on behalf of the National Liberation Army (ELN). Another five percent are carried out by Bacrim members for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Authorities are now trying to recover more than $10 million worth of land that was purchased by gangs with extortion money, according to Guatibonza.
During the first nine months of 2013, extortion gangs in Colombia have taken at least $17 million from their victims, the general said.
In Bogota, the problem has become so acute that some bicycle taxi drivers pay for a “vaccination” of about $1.50 to extortionists, according to Guatibonza. The extortionists threaten to destroy the bicycles of the taxi drivers if they do not pay up, the general said.
“Bogota is a major problem,” according to Guatibonza.
Some threats are more serious. In July 2013, authorities in Bogotá dismantled a criminal gang that was allegedly working on behalf of the FARC, according to Insight Crime, a Medellín-based research organization.
The gang was allegedly contracted by FARC to threaten shop owners in Bogota with explosive devices in exchange for cash payments, Insight Crime reported.
FARC contracts with smaller gangs to commit extortion because “the FARC don´t have the capacity to directly manage this sort of micro activity,” the general said.
Oficina de Envigado
The Oficina de Envigado is a major drug trafficking organization that was formed by operatives who were once part of kingpin Pablo Escobar’s cartel.
In Medellin, extortion is believed to be one of the major criminal enterprises run by the Oficina de Envigado, according to Security Minister Arnulfo Serna.
Security forces are working hard to neutralize the Oficina de Envigado and other organized crime groups, according to Serna.
“In the metropolitan area of Medellin, there are 14 drug-trafficking crime groups operating and in the last year we’ve captured 200 criminals,” Serna recounted. . Some Medellin neighborhoods are so dangerous that residents have to pay fees to be able to cross through them to purchase food and other necessities.
Authorities are coordinating a strong, nationwide response to the extortion problem, Lloreda said.
Police patrols are in place around the clock in 17 major market places, according to Lloreda.
“We aim to have 25,000 additional officers targeting this issue and other common crimes in 24 main cities by the end of 2014,” Lloreda said.
The government has also recently proposed almost doubling the maximum sentence for extortion from 18 to 32 years.
But security forces will have to remain vigilant even if criminal penalties for extortion are increased, Lloreda said.
“Increasing prison sentences isn’t very dissuasive as these groups operate just as effectively on the streets as behind bars,” Lloreda explained.
Some organized crime leaders direct extortion schemes from prison, Guatibonza said. These criminals sometimes use cell phones to give orders to operatives who are not imprisoned. Security forces are working hard to stop them.
In Bogota, the Gaula have installed cell phone signal jammers in prisons to stop criminal leaders from using cell phones to provide directions to operatives outside the facilities, the general said.
“Last year, we began working with INPEC [Colombia's national prison authority] to test out this technology in Colombia's three largest prisons, which are Picaleña in Ibague, La Picota, and La Modelo in Bogota,” according to Guatibonza. “Our target is to replicate this in up to 20 prisons across the country”.
“Gang leaders gather intelligence on potential victims and then use cell phones to call their victims and link up with their people on the street to pick up the money or kidnap the targets,” he added.
Authorities are paying special attention to Medellin neighborhoods which have been hit hard by extortion.
Uniformed police are providing informational fliers and posters to business people and taxi and bus drivers, Guatibonza said. The fliers and posters are an effort to increase public awareness of the problem of extortion, and to urge people to report extortion attempts to the authorities.
“In cities like Medellín, as well as across the country, it´s vital now that the public works hand-in-hand with us to report these crimes so we can end this cycle of fear,” Guatibonza said.
The same thing is happening in Honduras, it is a terrible situation, especially for small businesses. Citizens' insecurity in Peru is frightful, attacks, robberies, kidnappings, extortion, etc, directed from the prisons themselves. The freedom and lenient sentences dictated by the judges, the pardons they have awarded to dangerous criminals, especially drug traffickers, in different administrations, and the corrupt activities of the authorities have strengthen organized crime, overloaded the work of Police and terrorized population. How much there is to be learned from Colombia. What harms humanity the most is the double moral of the governments. As far as I'm concerned, drugs should be approved. How can there not be gangs if the government steals what belongs to those displaced by violence, who are the actual victims, while the ones who are brought in collect their monthly allowance, of course they give it to them, to prevent them from uniting and killing them. And the displaced people supposedly receive aid every three months but years go by and they receive nothing, and if they claim restitution of the lands they are faced with those who took them, so that they are killed, that way the government easily gets rid of the problem. Who can the victims complain and ask a question to? The human rights lawyers simply charge for an answer. What an injustice, the displaced people spend months and months without receiving aid and they need to have a credit card to pay online for a lawyer's response. That's the cruel reality of the victims of our beloved country Colombia, and the president says that he is doing his job while the government and all the other people who steal from the victims have a happy year. The victims don't know what to do to provide a meal for their children and that is called human rights in Colombia. I think it's a really good website. It's very good that they put an end to this disgrace that is shattering the peace of Colombians, and especially the most affected states. Crack down on crime, no compassion. That's how we want the law to do it. The state or the governing class of my country are to blame, they should generate employment for the Colombians, regardless of their last names. For more work opportunities; politicians, put an end to begging, turn the money from the subsidies towards industries, companies, other honorable work. Mr. government, the peace conversation is very good, I wish you best of luck in Cuba, but don't forget that Colombia is hungry due to lack of employment opportunities. Gentlemen of Colombia, today you have to give a good example with Dr. Gustavo Petro and Bogota Humana . It' serious when people do not report things, because once I told some police officers that were there Our police officers should be more committed to the institution infiltrated by agents with suspicious reputation, who create disinterest and distrust for the general opinion. Thanks to those who defend the rights of the citizens with their dedication and courage. The Colombian police is a very honest institution and lately it has become more modernized, the only downside is that it has low wages. Congratulations to all the police officers. Keep it up. Very good but make it effective. I think there should be high-security prisons built for criminals, so they can feel imprisoned and be afraid to commit a felony. The news should be more concrete Thank you for your collaboration, and for making possible that what we think is expressed by other persons, and they support us.
Many, many thanks Crime will not end by putting them in prison. The problem is the lack of education, work, health, equality, etc... We Colombians should be aware of the great work performed by the police forces. Let's respect the authorities. It's interesting what the police is doing to capture those scumbags, I don't agree with those who have the right to do justice. . they award them with a house instead of jail. The authorities are now trying to retrieve lands worth over $10 million that were bought by gangs with money from extortion, according to Guatibonza.