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Colombia's gangs cash in with 'micro-extortion'

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Shop owners, bus drivers, and street vendors all have to make weekly extortion payments to the many gangs in Medellin, Colombia. The payments are small and difficult to track, but add up to big profits.

According to Fondelibertad, a Colombian agency which tracks security statistics, last year the department of Antioquia registered the highest number of extortion cases in Colombia: 223 in total. This is likely a gross underestimate: In cities like Antioquia's capital, Medellin, many victims of extortion do not bother to report the crime. The city registered only 137 official cases in 2010. Often, the extortion payment – known colloquially in Colombia as a "vacuna," or vaccination – is as small as 20,000 pesos (about $10) a week.

Charging such small vacunas makes sense on several levels: The sums are small enough that victims have less incentive to report the extortion to police, for fear of reprisals. The model can be adopted by a wide range of street gangs who may not have the power or the connections to demand vacunas from Medellin's real moneymakers: the brothels, casinos, nightclubs, and real estate businesses. Instead, the less wealthy and poorly armed street gangs extort smaller, more low-risk industries.

This can be as simple as knocking door-to-door and asking each household in a gang's given territory to pay a weekly "security" tax. This can range from 10,000 to 20,000 pesos for families ($5 to $10), and 25,000 to 40,000 for store owners (between $12 and $20).

One former member of the Medellin mafia got his start by extorting the city's onion and garlic traders, earning him the alias "El Cebollero." Other food distribution industries in Medellin – like arepas (maize cakes) and eggs – are taxed by local gangs, according to Medellin newspaper El Colombiano. One egg distributor was told he had to pay a weekly fee of 50,000 pesos (about $25) in order to continue supplying the neighborhood where he worked.

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