Authorities in Argentina recently dismantled a criminal group dedicated to fake kidnappings, a trend seen in other parts of Latin America where low-level criminals, rather than gangs, are relying on kidnapping as a quick way to earn funds.
The group -- which called itself "The Simulators" -- extorted over $113,000 from at least 24 victims over a four-month period, in addition to jewelry and other valuables paid as "ransoms," reported Clarin.
In order to fake the kidnappings, the group rented houses in target neighborhoods to gather information about potential victims, and would also conduct research online. The criminals would then call the victim late at night or in the early morning -- hoping to disorient the victim -- and pretend to have kidnapped a relative of the victim. One of the perpetrators would pretend to be the hostage and beg for help on the phone, while the others issued threats and demanded a ransom payment.
Both of the group's leaders have been arrested, but their five accomplices have yet to be identified.
InSight Crime Analysis
The strategy employed by "The Simulators" has been seen elsewhere in Latin America, as extortion and kidnapping schemes -- which were once considered the domain of gangs and illegal armed groups -- are increasingly being carried out by common criminals.
In Colombia, for example, guerrilla groups were responsible for an estimated 58 percent of kidnappings between 1970 and 2010. However, according to a December 2014 report from Colombia's anti-kidnapping and anti-extortion agency (GAULA), common criminals are now responsible for 75 percent of kidnappings and 86 percent of extortion cases. Last year, the Director of Colombian NGO Pais Libre told InSight Crime that fake kidnappings are a common form of extortion in Colombia, and frequently involve housewives as the victims.
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Similarly, although extortion is typically associated with powerful street gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 in Honduras, common criminals are the perpetrators in approximately 70 percent of cases, according to the country's National Anti-Extortion Force (FNA).
As in Honduras, where common criminals often pretend to be gang members in order to intimidate their victims, groups like "The Simulators" in Argentina feed off of very real fears. Kidnappings appear to be on the rise in Argentina: close to 700 incidents were reported between January 1 and September 30 last year, with cases involving prominent victims like the father of soccer star Carlos Tevez making headlines. Although this number pales in comparison to countries like Mexico, the threat of kidnapping is real enough to fuel an estimated 800 fake kidnappings every month in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area alone.