Colombian National Police dismantle prison-based extortion scheme

By Dialogo
September 26, 2014

The Colombia National Police (PNC) has broken up an extortion ring that was
directed by prison inmates.
An investigation by the PNC’s elite Anti-Kidnapping and Extortion Group
(GAULA) led to aggravated extortion and conspiracy charges against 21 people, 16 of
whom are women who were allegedly members of a prison-based extortion gang known as
The Prisons.
The PNC has identified 48 alleged victims of the prison gang. PNC agents are
continuing to investigate and are looking for additional victims.
The PNC described The Prisons as Colombia’s largest prison-based gang. It
operated from both men’s and women’s prisons in Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa
Marta, Cúcuta, Bucaramanga, Girón, Valledupar and Sincelejo.

A wide array of victims

The extortion gang usually targeted small businesses, transport operators,
loan companies and lawyers. Gang members identified potential victims through
business cards, classified ads or sometimes simply the telephone book. The extortion
gang members would gather intelligence on the victims’ businesses and family
The extortionists would then telephone the victims from prison and pretend to
be members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or other violent
terrorist and criminal groups.
Threatening the victims with violence against them, their businesses or their
family members, the extortionists would demand military-style gear such as
ammunition, uniforms and weapons. When the victims said they could not obtain such
equipment, the extortionists would demand cash payments of between 500,000 and 5
million Colombian pesos (about USD $250 to USD $2,500).
Since the beginning of 2014, PNC GAULA agents have dismantled 41 extortion
gangs and arrested 1,711 suspects.
Only about 14 percent of the suspects captured by PNC GAULA agents were
actual members of the FARC or other terrorist and criminal groups, such as Los
Rastrojos or El Clan de Úsuga. The PNC considered the rest of the suspects common
criminals, not organized crime operatives or terrorists.

Extortion affects many Colombians

Extortion in Colombia generates as much as $1 billion (USD) per year. During
a recent four-year span, reported cases of extortion increased almost three-fold,
from 830 to 2,316 reported offenses.
An estimated 125,000 Colombians had either paid extortion money or been
victims of attempted extortion, according to the 2012 National Crime Victimization
Survey. Medellín, Bogotá, Cali, Barranquilla and Santa Marta were the cities most
heavily affected by extortion.

Intelligence and infiltration

Colombian police are using intelligence and infiltration - often with
informants - to fight extortion schemes, including the one allegedly operated by
Investigating the internal workings of a criminal group allow police to learn
“who is leading these organizations engaged in extortion,” said Frederick Masé,
director of the Center of Investigations and Special Projects at the Universidad de
Externado de Colombia. “It is always important to capture criminals, (because) you
must also end the criminal structures.”
To combat prison-based extortion schemes, Colombian law enforcement officials
this year began blocking cell phone signals in a dozen detention centers. Law
enforcement officials plan to block signals in four more prisons by the end of 2014.

Safety advice for civilians

The National Police GAULA unit has also launched a public awareness campaign
called “The GAULA Touches Your Door” to advise potential victims of extortion or
kidnapping. Suggestions include:

Refrain from disclosing details of personal and family life to strangers.
Beware of salesmen or people pretending to be officials who try to get
personal information.
Sign up for telephone “caller ID” service.
Never provide personal information over the phone.
If contacted by a suspicious caller, try to record or write down details
of the call.

Julieta Pelcastre contributed to this article.

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