By Liam Higgins
The practice of criminal gangs demanding money from businesses for “protection” or “security” services has been going on for years in Guayaquil. Since 2020 however, police say the practice has spread to Quito, Cuenca and other cities and that the number of cases is on the rise.
Borrowing terminology from the Covid-19 pandemic, the extortionists often refer to their services as “vaccines.”
In a typical case, a business owner is contacted by an individual or individuals who demand monthly payments in exchange for a guarantee that the business will not be targeted by criminals. In some cases, owners and their families are personally threatened. Many of the contacts are made by phone or social media.
Spokesman for a Quito restaurant association, Diego Vivero, says the extortion of businesses is nothing new. What has changed, he says, is the frequency of demands and an increase in the intimidation and threats of violence. “In the past, our members were able to ignore most of these although some paid small amounts of money in the belief that it was going to help poor families,” he says. “Today, the threats come from organized groups often connected to the drug trade and these threats are more serious and often aimed directly at owners and their families. In the past, we were worried about theft and vandalism. Now we worry about our personal safety.”
According to National Police statistics, more than 2,000 Guayaquil businesses reported threats of extortion in the first nine months of 2022, up from 1,236 in 2021 and 978 in 2020. Figures were not available for Quito but Vivero says he knows of more than 200 cases. “The figures do not account for all cases, since many owners are afraid to make an official report.”
Business owners in Cuenca also say they are seeing an increase in threats, although most say they are not connected to drug gangs. “Many of the threats I hear about in the historical district, especially on Calle Larga, are made by individuals acting alone,” says bar owner Manolo Miller. “Some of them are bums and homeless men but you still have to worry about them since they have mental problems.”
The National Police command in Quito urges business owners to resist paying protection money. “Once the practice begins, there may be no end to it,” says spokesman Paul Gonzalez. “Some owners figure they can afford $50 a month to avoid a conflict with the extortionists but then the next month the demand goes up to $100. It is a slippery slope you don’t want to go down.” Like Vivero, he admits that most cases go unreported.
Gonzalez adds that the connection between criminal gangs and the extortionists is difficult to establish. “Many of those contacting businesses claim they are members of gangs, such as Los Choneros, but in many cases this is an intimidation tactic. We believe that most of them are acting alone.”
In Cuenca, 64 complaints have been filed by business owners following demands from extortionists. “Most of the local cases involve opportunists who make contact with business owners and move on if they are refused,” says Azuay police commander Manuel Bajaña. “Any threat is serious, however, and must be pursued but it is important to keep the problem in perspective.”
In addition to 20 threats made to businesses in Cuenca’s Barranco district, which includes Calle Larga, most occur at the city’s public markets. “I have one or two men come by my shop every month, telling me they’ll trash my business or beat me up if I don’t pay,” says Gloria Iglesias, who runs a clothing tienda at Feria Libre. “I recognize most of them. They’re drunks and drug addicts who need money for their habit.”
Azuay Province Governor Matías Abad says he takes the threats seriously. “We have met on several occasions with the police command and tourism officials and are serious about protecting local businesses,” he says. “The problem is small today and our goal is to keep it that way.” He adds that cases he is aware of are concentrated on Calle Larga and at Feria Libre.