Units of the Colombian Army, National Police, and Office of the Attorney General dealt a heavy blow to extortion gangs in 26 of the nation’s 32 departments. The outcome of this successful operation was announced to the nation by Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas and Army General Juan Pablo Rodríguez, the commander in chief of the Colombian Armed Forces, on July 28th at the general headquarters of the National Police.
“During Operation Sicilia (Sicily), 42 operations with 67 raids were conducted between July 25th and 27th,” Minister Villegas told Diálogo. “During those raids, firearms, cell phones, narcotics, and log books containing the names of potential victims were seized, 197 criminals captured, 188 [arrested] by court order, and the other nine caught red-handed.”
The gigantic operation was a nationwide offensive. It particularly focused on dismantling criminal organizations that spent several months extorting drivers, small merchants, and unlicensed vendors in Bogotá and in 26 municipalities nationwide.
Extortion rates decrease
Operation Sicilia required four months of investigative work. It was a detailed search-and-tracking effort that took down a huge network and greatly impacted the structure of criminal organizations that mercilessly preyed upon the civilian population, even going after people who perform simple and very small-scale jobs to survive.
“Through these types of operations focused on tackling extortion, we have been able to reduce this crime. Extortion has fallen by 44 percent nationally, meaning that the crime is now at half the number of cases recorded in the prior year,” Minister Villegas pointed out. “Results such as those from Operation Sicilia allow us to be more effective in fighting crime, and represent a meaningful change in the lives of the communities where interventions are made.”
Dangerous gangs dismantled
Through this nationwide offensive, the Colombian Army dismantled six criminal gangs: “Los Congos” (The Congos) in Magdalena; “Los Empleados Públicos” (Public Employees) in Medellín; “Los Parmalat” in Antioquia; “Los Cafeteros” (The Coffee Growers) in Arauca; “Los Socialistas” (The Socialists) in Norte de Santander, and “Pescado Frito” (Fried Fish) in Santander. Sicilia’s results included another 37 criminal organizations that were impacted, such as “Libertadores de Vichada” (The Liberators of Vichada) and “La Cordillera” (The Mountain Range) in Colombia’s coffee belt.
So far this year, the Colombian Armed Forces have captured more than 1,600 extortionists nationwide. They have broken up more than 80 gangs and organizations dedicated to this crime, which is often managed from inside the jails, a situation that has resulted in surveillance and control measure to be beefed up in recent years.
Countering extortion against the civilian population
The dismantling of extortion gangs has revealed the devastating effects of this crime. For example, business people, parking lot owners, truckers, and drivers of food delivery vehicles in Itagüí, Antioquia, were forced to pay the criminals between $3 and $170 a week in exchange for not threatening their security.
In some cities, residents were extorted for their water consumption, and bus, bicycle taxi, and auto rickshaw drivers were forced to pay to drive along certain routes. Small business owners were intimidated for trying to sell eggs, sugar, or salt, according to information provided to Diálogo by the General Command of the Colombian Armed Forces, which delves into a full exposé on the forms of extortion.
“The ‘Los Pepes’ gang that was arrested is accused of extorting shopkeepers in the municipalities of Atlántico department, and the members of the crime group ‘Los Gualiva’ are being tried for collecting an alleged ‘collaboration’ fee from business owners and truck drivers in Soacha, Cundinamarca, to improve their security situation,” the document confirms. “In Cali, the ‘Los Boqueños’ crime group was hit, catching 10 suspected criminals who had requested payments from the residents of Vallado, an area inhabited by people with scant resources.”
Program to boost the GAULAS
Extortion is one of the largest scourges in Colombian society. This crime is liable to spread due to the post-conflict situation. Dissident guerrillas may resort to extortion as a source of financing.
“The great challenge is working with greater efficacy in order to counter organizations and people involved in extortion,” Gen. Rodríguez acknowledged. “We’ve lowered the rates of this crime but the goal is to get it down to zero.”.
The military is working a program to boost the 30 Unified Action Groups for Personal Liberty (GAULAS, per their Spanish acronym). These groups are located at strategic points throughout Colombia, plus two elite GAULAS that the high command has activated to address special situations when any zone is beset by specific extortion activities.
“The result of Operation Sicilia is its clear demonstration that our interagency work is yielding excellent results in countering extortion and kidnapping,” Gen. Rodríguez added. “All of this institutional effort has averted the payment of sums calculated at $2.5 million so far in 2017. Our capabilities are now better structured and have greater reach. Sicilia is an example of that.”