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Colombian criminals turning to extortion

A 2-year-old government security crackdown has sharply reduced Colombia’s staggering kidnapping rate, so insurgent groups and common criminals have turned to extortion.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Believing that Colombia’s violence had ebbed, Giovanni Colmenares and his family moved from the United States back to Colombia last year, opened a bar in Bogota and were looking to buy an apartment. But then one day assailants hustled him into a car and put a gun to his head.

They were angry at him for ignoring their phone calls and letters demanding $17,000 — letters like the one in his mailbox that said: “We know your address and your movements. Meet our demands or face the consequences. ...Your children are getting prettier every day. Don’t put them in danger.”

Extortion is on the rise across Colombia, spreading fear and discouraging investment.

A 2-year-old government security crackdown has sharply reduced Colombia’s world-record kidnapping rate, so insurgent groups and common criminals have turned increasingly to extortion.

“It’s much simpler than kidnapping. You pick up the phone, issue threats, sow fear, place your demands and hang up,” Col. Humberto Guatibonza, deputy director of the National Police’s elite anti-kidnapping and extortion unit known as the GAULA, said in an interview.

On average, four of every 10 calls yield a payoff, said David Buitrago, an expert with Pais Libre, a victim support group. Targets are often farmers and middle-class workers such as shopkeepers or drivers who have nowhere to flee, Buitrago said.

Rising percentage
In Bogota alone, 2,271 extortion cases were reported in 2003, a 22 percent increase from 2002, according to Pais Libre.

The main extortionists are common street gangs, followed by right-wing paramilitary groups and two leftist rebel outfits that have been fighting for 40 years to topple the government. The insurgents, however, are believed to often outsource the job to common criminals.

Extortion payments bring in at least $228 million a year to the rebels and their paramilitary foes, the biggest source of income after drug trafficking, according to a United Nations report.

Faced with the extortion epidemic, the GAULA has launched a campaign urging people not to pay and to report the crime to authorities. They say those who refuse to give in are unlikely to be killed — at least in cities. But that has not calmed Colmenares, who says he couldn’t afford the extortionists’ demand.

Permanent fear’
“We live in permanent fear,” he said, eyes darting around, at a tiny Bogota apartment he has rented to hide out. “One night they picked me up outside my bar ... forced me into the back of a car and put a gun to my head. I thought I’d never see my two boys again.”

He said he doesn’t know who is behind the extortion but that he was probably targeted on the assumption he had left the United States a wealthy man — even though he was living with his in-laws in a middle-class Bogota neighborhood.

Colmenares has pulled his two kids from school, never sets foot in the bar and rarely ventures beyond the local supermarket, while facing mounting debts.

Colmenares would love to go back to Miami, but has been denied a visa because he spent 10 years doing odd jobs there without proper work papers.

“Coming back to Colombia was the worst decision I ever made,” he said.

For some, authorities are useless
Some extortion victims say going to the authorities is of little help. “They only take up a case once somebody has been killed or abducted,” said Carmen, who did not want to give her surname, fearing retribution.

Her family owns mobile phone shops in Bogota and has paid tens of thousands of dollars to extortionists, forcing the family to sell its vacation cottage and car.

Guatibonza conceded that GAULA officers lack the funds to handle every case. He said a lack of tough laws against extortion makes prosecution difficult, and that most victims are unwilling to entrap the extortionists for fear of reprisals.

Carmen says she has moved seven times in five years to evade the extortionists, who keep demanding more money. They haven’t located her for the past six months, but still she bars her grandchildren from playing in the park. She said the extortionists identified themselves as leftist rebels, but without specifying their affiliation.

“They will probably find us again,” she said. “I have lost hope that one day it will end.”