Urban terrorism on the rise in Peru

“Urban terrorism” on the rise in Peru

In Peru, criminals use violent threats and extortion to terrify informal entrepreneurs and borrowers and their families who are forced to make endless payments.

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Eduardo was blackmailed before he even opened his business. He ignored the threats, but the tone took an even darker turn when one night a person on a motorcycle opened fire on the property he was developing in eastern Lima.

From Peru to Colombia, including Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, demands for extortion are commonplace in many Latin American countries.

According to intelligence sources consulted by AFP, the millions of dollars generated by this activity are surpassed only by drug and human trafficking and could prove more profitable than illegal mining.

Eduardo, who prefers to withhold his name for fear of reprisals, learned of the attack on his establishment, a sauna, from a video sent to his phone. “I am afraid for my life and that of my family,” assures the forty-year-old.

The gang operating in his neighborhood charged him a $13,300 “registration fee” and a monthly payment of $1,300.

“I travel almost in secret because I imagine that they have already studied everything and know where I live, where I have breakfast, where I have lunch,” he says.

Small or large traders, transport companies, residential areas or entire cities, there are few places where there are no criminal organizations.

“We know who you are”

Gangs like the Clan del Golfo in Colombia, the Tiguerones in Ecuador or the Tren de Aragua in Venezuela, which are also present in Colombia, Chile and Peru, act as real “criminal enterprises” in search of markets and profits. “Partners in other countries,” Peruvian prosecutor in charge of fighting crime Jorge Chavez told AFP.

Despite its intimidating power, there has been a flood of complaints in many countries. In 2023, Peru recorded 19,400, an increase of almost 500% in two years. The same applies to Ecuador. According to the business network Coparmex, an extortion request is reported every hour in Mexico.

According to Andrés Choy, president of the Peruvian Small Traders Association, which brings together 22,000 members, 13,000 of whom were victims of extortion in 2023, the messages are similar every time: “We know who you are, we know what time your business is.” opens (…) when you go to the market where your son goes to school”.

The next warning could be a “photo of your loved one,” causing some to close up shop or send their children abroad.

In January, explosives and shots were fired at the facade of the hardware store run by Anita in Lima. “The threats changed my life. I have to hide with my children,” complains the 43-year-old widow and mother of two daughters.

“Parallel state”

The gangs have practically created a “parallel state”: they control territories in which they set up a tax system, explains Ecuadorian Colonel Roberto Santamaria, police chief of Nueva Prosperina, one of the most violent attacks in the port of Guayaquil.

After establishing a reign of terror with their threats, they ensure that the money is collected, often resorting to minors who cannot be prosecuted. Often another faction is responsible for retaliation against those who do not comply.

Colonel Santamaria calculates: A simple neighborhood with 2,000 houses brings in a haul of $120,000 per month, at a rate of two dollars per day per household.

In the Colombian city of Buenaventura, the main Pacific port with 311,000 residents, “everyone has to pay” whether they are “opening a business, building a building or improving it,” says Elizabeth Dickinson, an analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG). the country.

From call centers to AI

In Peru, as in other countries, gang methods have developed. At first they demanded money in return for insurance, then small loans appeared with monthly interest rates of up to 20%.

“If the 'customer' cannot pay, the blackmail begins: if you don't pay, we will burn down your kiosk, grab your family, your sister or your children to hurt or kill them,” explains prosecutor Chavez.

Call centers have recently started offering loans through an application. Victims receive the money after providing personal information, which is then used for blackmail.

Criminals are now also using artificial intelligence to create nude photos with real faces. To prevent them from going viral, victims have to pay.

Although the population lives in fear, the region's economy continues to thrive. Neither Eduardo nor Anita would say whether they would end up paying, but the former has opened his sauna and Anita's hardware store is still in operation.