The caller identified himself as a member of the Rastrojos drug gang, then threatened to kill the businessman unless he paid $250 a month in protection money.
Seeing no alternative and not trusting the police to intervene, the owner of a small lumber concern quietly paid the monthly “vaccinations,” as bribes are called here, until early last month, when the gang called to demand a much steeper payoff.
That was the last straw. He joined the ranks of 10,000 residents of Tumaco who marched through the steamy streets last month to demand that the government do something about the thugs in this lawless Pacific port city who, thwarted by successful eradication efforts to reduce coca cultivation, have gone hunting for other sources of revenue.
“Life to me now means fear, uncertainty and impotence,” said the lumber business owner, who spoke on the condition that neither he nor his business be identified. “It’s outrageous to work hard and create jobs, just to hand money over to people because they inspire terror.”
Residents here have learned to take threats seriously. Last month, assailants killed City Councilman Jesus Perlaza. The mayor’s private secretary was kidnapped. The city’s homicide rate is three times the national average.
Extortion is a growing problem in many parts of Colombia. In January, most of the businesses in Cienaga, a town near the Caribbean coast, didn’t open for a day to protest the killing of store owner Javier Hernandez after he publicly refused to pay a “vaccination.” But Tumaco has been especially hard hit.
Two years ago, extortion was virtually unheard of here. Now El Tiempo newspaper has quoted a local chamber of commerce official as saying that nine of 10 businesses in Tumaco are forced to pay protection money. Extortion cases are up 80% since 2009, one police official estimated.
“We’re conscious of the fact that there is a grave problem of extortion in Tumaco,” said Colombian national police Gen. Humberto Guatibonza, who heads a Bogota-based police task force trying to combat the scourge. “With drug trafficking under better control, these criminals have to look for other sources, and extortion is one of them.”
Guatibonza said his forces are being beefed up, and he noted that police had arrested 147 minors in the Tumaco area in recent weeks on charges of participating in extortion rackets.
Concerned that some of the gains made in combating drug trafficking under Washington’s $7.6-billion Plan Colombia aid package could be at risk, U.S. officials are investing additional funds in alternative crop programs in the Tumaco area in an effort to give residents legitimate options.
In September, several top USAID officials toured a small community called San Luis Robles northeast of Tumaco, where an apparently successful U.S.-funded cocoa farming project has persuaded many in the village of 3,000 to abandon coca crops. Similar projects are planned for other communities on Tumaco’s outskirts.
But no one underestimates the difficulty of combating crime in Tumaco proper, a town of 183,000 that for the large part is a densely populated warren of shanties built on stilts over the bay. The unemployment rate is 55%, and poverty defines 58% of families, said Ernesto Moreno, an official with Colombia’s Social Action agency.
“Communities want to change because they have seen the example of towns like San Luis Robles,” Moreno said. “But when the state is absent and resources are lacking, people feel abandoned.”
On the day that USAID officials visited the area, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos also arrived here to promise relief. One hundred more police officers will be assigned to the area, he said, as well as another army brigade, adding 1,100 troops to the 900 already here.
For the lumber shop owner, the reinforcements can’t come soon enough.
“Just walking the street from your house to work, or your work to your house, is taking a risk,” the businessman said. “You need eyes on the back of your head to see everything that is going on.”
Kraul is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Jenny Carolina Gonzalez in Bogota contributed to this report.