A presumed truce between the two most powerful criminal organizations in Medellin is resulting in a drop in homicides, but is fueling extortion and protection racketeering schemes, said a local security expert.
The presumed truce between local crime syndicate Oficina de Envigado and neo-paramilitary group “Los Urabeños,” allegedly bartered by members of the city’s political elite, has been considered the cause of a significant drop of the city’s murder and displacement rates.
However, according to security expert Heidy Gomez from the University of Antioquia, the truce also has negative side effects; the fueling of extortion and protection racketeering schemes.
“Two problems, homicide and displacement, have been diminished but there has also been an increase of the extortion level, Gomez told Colombia Reports. The logic of the ‘pact’ also includes that the armed groups determine which areas are controlled by who while at the same time negotiating the rates and percentages of extortion in these areas.“
According to Gomez, the business of extortion and protection racketeering is economically highly profitable and has increased significantly in the last years.
One of the trends is that extortion fees are going up while an increasing number of sectors are being extorted.
“In a historical perspective extortion rackets targeted stores and companies in the early 1990s which were paying a very minimal fee that has risen drastically up until now. But the business has become so profitable that now they are extorting the whole population with a minimum fee that sometimes goes unnoticed as being demanded by the ‘boys from the corner’,” said Gomez.
Gomez’ claims are supported by newspaper El Tiempo, which recently reported that the “game” has changed from extorting only businessmen to the extortion of small sums from the poorest neighborhoods’ populations.
This means that the criminal groups’ grip stretches from small businesses – charging them $25 monthly for selling bread – to anybody’s “right” to leave the house at morning to go to work and to come back home unharmed — charging a daily fee of $1.00.
According to Gomez, the most worrying of recent extortion trends is the increase in perceived legitimacy of the criminal practice.
The researcher said local police in at least one registered case told citizens who were complaining about domestic violence not to bother them with such “trifles” and instead consult the “boys” to resolve the issue.
In poor Medellin neighborhoods, the gangs that are carrying out the extortion practices actually do provide certain “services” to the community – like regulating business interests and even family affairs — which legitimizes making regular protection payment over turning to the local authorities.
“It is a practice that is very difficult to prosecute because it is extremely hard to find evidence given the lack of complaints about it from the affected population. This is why this aspect has to be analyzed further,” stated Gomez
“The complexity of this crime not only lies in the difficulty to prosecute those responsible, but in the level of tolerance with which this practice is received in some party of the affected population,” a defense Ministry official told El Tiempo.
According to the newspaper, the government’s answer to this problem is plans to raise the penalty for extortion to a maximum of 24 years in prison and boosting police surveillance in the most vulnerable parts of the city.
However, Gomez thinks the solution lies within the education system, teaching younger generations about the threats and consequences of extortion for society.
In spite of repeated requests, the Medellin police department failed to release figures related to non-lethal criminal activities like extortion and armed robberies.
- La extorsión en Colombia empieza desde los 1.000 pesos (El Tiempo)
- Interview with Heidi Gomez