Boom in Colombian Extortion Rings Undermines Security Gains

Feb 15, 2015 | Surveillance & Security

BOGOTA, Colombia — Their names he never knew, but their faces he could never forget. At the end of every month, men using aliases such as “Smelly Feet” and “Grandpa” casually slipped into the backseat of his unlicensed taxi, a rusting 1985 Chevette, to demand their payment.

For years, drivers of pirate cabs in the sprawling slum of Usme, on the southern outskirts of Bogota, had no choice but to pay up. Either that or risk watching extorters set ablaze their cars or hurt their loved ones.

“Whenever I left my house I looked behind my back,” said the driver, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear for his safety. Eventually, he mustered the courage to denounce the racket to police who, months later, launched an armed sweep.

“They were so sure of themselves,” he said, recalling with fright the terror he lived with. “They never thought they’d be caught.”

For many Colombians, the threat of such shakedowns remains.

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