Bolivian authorities were taken by surprise on November 7, 2018, when they captured three Venezuelans during an operation to dismantle a "gota a gota" loan shark network, a criminal activity connected to Colombian mafias.
Five months earlier, two other Venezuelans had been arrested while making collections in Yacuiba, in the Tarija region.
What first drew the authorities attention was how the Venezuelans travelled on motorcycles with helmets with dark visors and with collection cards similar to those used by Colombians.
*This article was originally published by Connectas as part of a regional series on "gota a gota" loansharking networks. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.
“We are convinced,” said one of the investigators that participated in the operation in La Paz, “that these Colombian networks are taking advantage of the social and humanitarian crisis facing Venezuelans to use them as collectors and avoid being caught by special forces.”
On Thursday, June 20, the winter solstice began along with the Aymara New Year. It was the beginning of the year 5527 according to the indigenous Aymara calendar, and all of Bolivia was closed for the holiday weekend. Still, we were referred for this El País report in collaboration with CONNECTAS, to the Special Anti-Crime Task Force (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Crimen - FELCC) headquarters, where Colonel Sergio Bustillos Maldonado explained how this criminal economy expanded in Bolivia.
Despite the fact that the "gota a gota," meaning "drop by drop," loan sharking arrived in Bolivia in 2010, the presence of lenders in La Paz is a relatively new phenomenon, the high-ranking official explained. He added that “the first complaint was received in April 2018, when a Colombian assaulted a woman traveling by taxi. We managed to locate this person on the street Calle González, in Alto Sopocachi.”
“During the operation we realized that the man was a ‘gota a gota’ lender and that the woman was behind in her payments. The woman denounced the man to the press, and then we started the operations to dismantle these criminal groups,” the official explained.
On April 11, 2018, the FELCC special forces, the Attorney General's Office and the Court of Justice conducted a raid in which they captured Miguel Ángel Duque and ten other Colombians dedicated to illegal lending practices. Authorities seized four motorcycles, weapons used to threaten victims, as well as money and cards with information about the routes and debtors.
Over the next three weeks, there were two more operations in La Paz, in which six more people were arrested for making mini-loans with 40 percent interest rates. Among those captured were a Bolivian and an Ecuadorian.
“We have conducted the so-called Plan Tapón (Plug Plan), which aims to limit the actions of Colombian subjects, who are the ones that promote this type of business in our country, and we are doing constant follow-ups to limit or neutralize their actions in Bolivian society,” said Colonel Bustillos.
“We have also seen,” another police source explained, “that there is a crime school where the Colombians that make up part of these delinquent structures, whose bosses are located in the city of Santa Cruz, train Bolivians and citizens of other nationalities in order to expand this loan system with funds from dubious sources.”
As is often the case in other countries as well, authorities claim that the "gota a gota" practices are under control. To find out more, we visited the Kollusuyo market, located in the eastern part of La Paz, where thousands of people crowd narrow corridors every day in search of food. Here the term "gota a gota" is synonymous with fear and mistrust.
A short man, with a pronounced belly and copper-colored skin, who we will refer to as Manolo since he refused to provide his name, said that a lot of people felt at peace when they captured the lenders in 2018. “Those that owed money to the Colombians no longer had to respond for the money and many celebrated when they said they were deported. However, other lenders are still here," he said.
In March 2019, Bolivia’s Director General of Migration announced that thirteen Colombians arrested in La Paz for "gota a gota" loan shark practices would be deported, as they also entered the country illegally, circumventing migration controls.
Information provided to the Special Force to Fight Crime in La Paz revealed that the three dismantled organizations had 357 people who were daily collection victims, but that none of the victims had filed a complaint.
Bolivian authorities consider the "gota a gota" loans to be a form of kidnapping, or an act of modern slavery, in which the people carry psychological shackles in their pockets. “The people that were victims of the loan sharks feel as if they have been rescued; because they were prisoners of harassment and intimidation,” Colonel Bustillos explained.
Authorities determined that the money from the "gota a gota" operation was remitted from La Paz to the chiefs in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and from there, the money was sent to Colombia.
Covering Up One Crime With Another
When the "gota a gota" phenomenon first reached Bolivia in 2010, the Colombians sent to expand the loan shark networks around the region trapped their victims with excessive loan rates.
The "gota a gota" gangs first appeared in the city of Santa Cruz, where dozens of people entered Bolivia by land from Peru, via the Desaguadero municipality along Lake Titicaca. In order to hide their true intention of providing credit with high interest rates, they started to sell poor quality Chinese electric home appliances on credit, or to produce the appliances domestically and then add Japanese or German labels.
Since 2009, following the creation of the Andean Community of Nations and signing of other international agreements, the Colombians have had no restrictions on entering Bolivia. “We make up part of Mercosur, and this multinational agreement provides the Colombians, as well as citizens of other countries, 30 days to stay in Bolivia as a tourist. When foreigners are apprehended for a crime, we channel the information through Interpol and the embassies to verify their records,” explained the FELCC commandant.
According to statistics from Bolivia’s Office of Immigration, between 2012 and 2015, 1,356 people were deported from the country for not respecting migratory norms, with the highest number being Colombians, with 274 deported, followed by Argentines and Peruvians.
SEE ALSO: Bolivia News and Profile
The pressure and violence used by the loan sharks when making collections, on top of the historic presence of drug cartel members and organized criminal groups in Santa Cruz, has aroused negative sentiments towards foreigners among the local population.
On June 1, 2010, congressman Isaac Avalos and former President Evo Morales, said that the Colombians were the “most dangerous” foreigners to have arrived in the country.
“Among every ten Colombian citizens that arrive to Bolivia, there are two good ones, the rest are committed to illicit activities that could include drugs or thugs, thieves or murderers," said the influential senator at the time.
Avalos argued for a census to be conducted of foreigners in the country, which generated an outcry from Colombian consular authorities that later led to the congressman retracting his statement. Still the xenophobic sentiment seems constant.
In February 2011, the Anti-Narcotics Special Forces arrested Jesús María Osorio, considered to be one of the most important links to the Colombian Norte del Valle Cartel. Bolivian police warn that most of the young people entering the country over the last few years have come from Colombia’s northern valley region. Several pilots who came to work in Bolivia and were never heard from again, were also from the Northern Valley. According to the Chancellery, thirteen Colombians have been listed as "disappeared" in Bolivia over the last six years.
But there is another element connecting the phenomenon to the Northern Valley. Those who came from this region were key to the "gota a gota" loan shark expansion into the cities surrounding Santa Cruz, like Cotoca, Montero, La Guardia and El Torno.
Those in the country’s prisons are responding for crimes connected to "gota a gota" scams like usury, extortion, financial crimes, criminal associations, threats and fraud, for selling Chinese products with fake labels.
According to data provided by Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in response to an information request, there are 202 Colombians detained in Bolivia, though no crime is listed for their arrest.
Back in Santa Cruz, the phenomenon of "gota a gota" grew as the victims remained silent. That changed in July 2013, when Bolivia’s Anti-Drug Force launched an investigation in the Los Pozos market. Their hypothesis was that these credit lenders were linked to an asset-laundering system for Colombian drug trafficking operations in the eastern part of the country.
National director of the Anti-Narcotics Special Task Force (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico - FELN) Colonel Gonzalo Quesada stated at that time that behind the illegal loan activity, based on an investigation conducted by the Financial Research and Analysis Group, was “ the laundering of dirty Colombian money from illicit activities."
Police pressure displaced several of the lenders in the area. Over the following months they appeared in Cochabamba, Pandi, Oruro, La Paz and Tarija, on the border with Argentina.
The "gota a gota" police operations in Bolivia occurred in March 2018 in Villa Tunari, in the Cochabamba region. Nine Colombians were arrested and accused of torturing their victims. The alleged ringleader, Hugo de Jesús Restrepo, was also captured. Seized during the operation were three motorcycles, two.22-caliber firearms, two bags and six envelopes of marijuana, cash, counterfeit banknotes, and fourteen cellphones, among other things.
Minister of the Interior Carlos Romero described the operation as “very significant” because the "gota a gota" scheme was operated by “Colombian subjects that made up part of a structured organization with criminal associations.” He also explained that Restrepo operated from the tropics of Cochabamba. “He was residing in the municipality of Villa Tunari and operating through two businesses, a clothing store and a restaurant, that were set up as fronts.”
However, the big fish for Bolivian authorities -- Christian Gómez --escaped two months later, during an operation in May 2018 in the Miraflores sector of La Paz. Gómez had been identified by authorities as being the person responsible for managing the "gota a gota" loan shark operations. According to the Properties Division of the Special Anti-Crime Task Force, Gómez escaped the country with his wife and daughter via land routes, evading border controls.
*This article was originally published by Connectas. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.