Prosecutors in Ecuador are investigating a wave of extortions believed to have been carried out by the same criminal group, raising the question of what effect the growing presence of transnational organized crime will have on local criminal activities.
Between September and December of 2013, Quito authorities received 75 reports of extortion committed by one group, reported El Comercio. The modus operandi of the group was to make threatening phone calls to victims to convince them to hand over large sums of money using transfer services. Up to 300 other victims were targeted last year, prosecutor Jose Luis Jaramillo told La Hora.
One victim was contacted after publishing a notice offering a reward for anyone who found her pet. The extortionists had information about how many children she had and what time she arrived and left work. She gave them $300 after being threatened. Another victim was told that the criminals had a "personal" video of him, and it would be handed over to his wife unless he paid $500.
The 75 victims between September and December were called from 60 different telephone numbers, one of which was traced to a SIM card found in a Quito jail.
On February 4, the Armed Forces in the major port city of Guayaquil also announced they had detained five Marines -- one sergeant, three corporals and a sailor -- who were being investigated by prosecutors after being accused of extortion, reported El Comercio.
InSight Crime Analysis
Extortion is a mainstay of criminal groups across Latin America -- it is a practice that brings in millions and serves as a primary form of income for street gangs in countries including Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia.
Ecuador has a very different criminal landscape than that of many of its neighbors. It is historically a safer country, with no major domestic criminal organizations. As such, extortion has not been a major problem, and even fell from 246 cases in 2011 to 167 cases in 2012.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion
Nonetheless, the recent cases illustrate the crime does persist. The telephone threats follow typical Latin American extortion patterns, as does the fact that one call was traced to a prison. The possible number of additional victims noted by prosecutor Jaramillo also indicates the crime may be significantly underreported.
As foreign criminal drug trafficking organizations -- particularly from Colombia -- continue to establish themselves in Ecuador, this type of crime may start to increase, as seems to be happening with microtrafficking in the country. However, homicide rates dropped to a nine-year low during 2013, suggesting the presence of transnational crime is not yet bringing the same ills that it has elsewhere in the region.