comerciantes de Gamarra
Gamarra Perú, foto tomada del portal Emprender

The harsh reality of insecurity in Peru, from the mafias extorting traders in Gamarra to the rise of ‘gota a gota’ loans and crimes involving cellphone thefts. Despite the efforts of authorities, the lack of a clear plan leaves citizens helpless.

Report: Karla Velezmoro

Photography: Víctor Mallqui

He decided to speak to reporters only after hiding his face behind a cap, glasses, and a mask. «I’m not afraid of anything, that’s why I reported them to the Police. But now it’s different, they’re threatening to harm my family if I continue with this,» he said.

Maria, as she will be called to protect her identity, is an informal trader in the commercial hub of Gamarra, the largest textile and garment conglomerate in Peru and one of the top three in the world. This business center is visited daily by between 100,000 and 200,000 people, making it attractive to mafias.

«The streets are divided. Depending on the place, they charge you. For me to be able to sell where I am, I had to pay an entrance fee of one thousand soles (approximately 270 dollars) and I have to give them 20 soles (5 dollars) daily. If you don’t pay, they don’t let you sell,» Maria recounts.

About 40,000 small and medium-sized enterprises are part of Gamarra, a commercial hub that can generate 6 billion soles in formal turnover (more than 1.5 billion dollars), not counting the money from informal trade, which is estimated to be composed of about three thousand street vendors.

«I reported them to the Police last year but they haven’t done anything. If we’re selling on the street, why should we have to pay them? It’s not fair that they take the money without doing anything,» Maria comments, her voice breaking.

The president of the Gamarra Entrepreneurs Association, Susana Saldaña, stated that there is a dispute over public space between Peruvian and Venezuelan extortion gangs in the area. «We have calculated the money that enters these mafias and it is approximately one billion five hundred million soles a year, that’s why they have money to pay. We have seen that when the municipal authority tries to organize the streets, there have been pitched battles, they come with firearms, knives, machetes, sticks to confront with total disrespect for authority.»

Informal vendors are not the only targets of these mafias; formal traders are also targeted. «One of our associates recently reported being extorted. They threatened to kill him and his family, and even sent him grenades, envelopes with bullets, and funeral wreaths, accompanied by intimidating messages. They told him that if he insists on refusing to pay, they will kill him. And what has been the response of the State? The Public Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation for 60 days and after this they will request who is the owner of the telephone number from which the extortion calls were made. Let’s hope that, by then, our associate and his family are still alive,» Saldaña commented, noting that the businessman closed his business.

The despair of small and medium-sized entrepreneurs is such that they are in favor of adopting measures that for some could be dangerous. «A quick reaction from the State is to deploy the Army to the streets. Many people think it’s crazy and it’s because they don’t live in this situation. Why would the Army go out on the streets? they say. Of course, because it’s not you, because it’s not your family, because it’s not you receiving the calls, it’s easy to say that, but if you were the one being extorted, if your family was threatened, you would even want to take justice into your own hands.»

Maria knows the story of the extorted entrepreneurs in Gamarra and considers that if the authorities have done nothing for them, they will do even less for her and all the informal traders. «The President (Dina Boluarte) is useless, she’s a zero, just like the congressmen. They are fine, happy, but they don’t think about the rest of us who are extorted, who are assaulted. They don’t consider how difficult it is to earn money for someone else to come and take it away,» Maria lamented.

In 2023, the Public Prosecutor’s Office reported that more than 19,000 extortion complaints were filed. However, the actual number of cases is estimated to be much higher, as many are not reported out of fear.


The “gota a gota”

Pablo, 23 years old, used to help his mother in the family business, located near the Caquetá Market, one of the main supply centers in Lima. Due to economic problems, his mother decided to turn to lenders who offered fast money, albeit with a 40% interest rate. «In ‘gota a gota’ loans, Venezuelans are the workforce for Colombians; they are the ones who collect,» explained Pablo. «Colombians provide them with the motorcycle, the helmet, everything. And if you can’t pay, you know what happens: bullets.» Pablo recalled how they were threatened because it was difficult for them to meet the payments. «We had to pay a fee to be able to work and meet the loan requirements.»

Pablo’s mother’s store is one of the 100,000 bodegas that closed last year due to crime, whether due to robberies or extortions. Meanwhile, on March 16, the police arrested twenty people, including Colombians and Venezuelans, suspected of being part of an extortion gang dedicated to ‘gota a gota’ loans. During the operation in condominiums in Comas, a district in northern Lima, firearms, explosives, and 20,000 soles (about 6,000 dollars) were found.

Although extortion and kidnapping (a modality that the police believed to be eradicated) are the crimes that make headlines, there are other offenses that affect Peruvians and have left families in mourning.

The life for a cellphone

It was 2 in the morning, and like every Saturday, Sara Minaya went out to meet her son Marco, who was coming back from work. Marco had called her to say he was on the main avenue, so Sara headed there when suddenly she spotted a group of boys surrounding a young man lying on the ground in the distance; she thought maybe someone had been hit by a car. However, as she approached, she noticed with horror that the injured young man was her 18-year-old son, bleeding from his chest. «The Serenazgo didn’t want them to move my son. It took more than fifteen minutes before the firefighters arrived and took him to the hospital. There, they informed me that Marco had passed away,» Sara recalled.

Since September 19, 2023, Sara practically became a detective, and it was she who obtained the security camera footage showing how her son was followed by a couple.

In the footage, Marco is clearly seen walking with his backpack on his back, while the man approaches with a knife in hand. However, the cameras did not capture the moment of the tragedy, but given the location, there is no doubt that he was the perpetrator of the crime. «They stole his cellphone. For a cellphone, they killed my son,» lamented Sara. Six months later, after going back and forth between police, prosecutors, and judicial offices, Sara managed, through her presence and insistence, to have the alleged perpetrators of the crime captured.

Like Sara, Pilar and Betty are fighting to find justice for their sons. Pilar Samijison’s son, Koki Nicho, 28, was killed in Los Olivos for resisting the theft of his cellphone, while Betty Abarca’s son, Bryan Julca, was killed at the door of his house in Comas, even though he handed over his backpack and iPhone.

In Peru, more than 4500 mobile phones are stolen daily, according to OSIPTEL. In response to this situation, the Executive Power enacted Legislative Decree No. 1578, which establishes penalties of up to 30 years in prison for the offender who steals a cellphone using explosives or motor vehicles.

Abdul Miranda, chief of citizen security for the Lima municipality, reported that they seized 20,000 cellphones in the mega-operations they carried out during 2023.

«We, as a municipality and the police, have launched a campaign against blood-stained cellphones; we have conducted a series of operations to seize and identify the places where these cellphones are sold,» he explained.

foto tomada del portal: Gestión

«It is believed that by putting the Armed Forces with rifles on the streets, this problem can be addressed, and it is not like that. It is also believed that it is an emergency problem, and they declare the districts in a state of emergency, thinking that this will significantly reduce extortions, but that has not happened,» commented Basombrío, considering it a lucid perception of the population when they say there is no plan to combat crime. He considered that the greatest deterioration in terms of citizen insecurity has occurred during the government of Dina Boluarte.

The former minister referred to the relationship between the increase in crime and the migration of Venezuelan citizens. He said that crime must be fought regardless of nationality. But, he also lamented that the government announces the expulsion of Venezuelans when they know that such a measure is not easy to implement. «To expel them, there must be a place that wants to receive them. Venezuela does not want to receive them. Where are you going to expel them, to the moon?»

To this worrying reality, the political problems that Peru is experiencing are added. Peruvian anthropologist Víctor Limonchi opined that unfortunately, in the country, in recent years, there has been political instability that affects the entire Peruvian society, but particularly citizen security. «This situation affects the change of leadership that we have frequently seen, especially in the Police, and that undermines the morale of the entire police force.»

Sociologist Vicente Otta believes that there are many more aspects to consider in this issue: the lack of values and corruption. «We have had five presidents, all of them under investigation, some in jail. And it is understood that the president embodies the nation. So, what happens when the highest authority is corrupt, is the first to violate and break the laws? This is transferred to other high authorities: ministers, judges, prosecutors, police, even to the Congress, which is supposed to represent the interests of the population. We are facing an extremely complex, extremely negative situation.»

At the close of this report, President Dina Boluarte is questioned for several watches, one of them a Rolex, which she did not declare before taking office. The Prosecutor’s Office has initiated an investigation into this matter, and one of her ministers, in an effort to defend her, hinted that the Rolex might not be genuine. And this is perhaps the least of the criticisms of the head of state, as she has not yet answered for the deaths during the protests of 2022.

And if this seems little, the Minister of the Interior, Víctor Torres, has been questioned by Congress for not showing results in his fight against citizen insecurity. The necessary signatures to censure him have not yet been obtained. Meanwhile, the new Prime Minister, Gustavo Adrianzén – after a scandal, the previous one in office had to resign – has given him his support.

In the midst of this political turmoil, the Public Ministry and the Police dealt a severe blow to arms traffickers. They managed to dismantle a gang that supplied the Ecuadorian market. «The information that the Organized Crime prosecutor’s office has, together with our police, is that one of those weapons that has come precisely from this company would have been used in the murder of the former presidential candidate of Ecuador,» said Prosecutor Jorge Chávez.

But beyond the efforts of prosecutors and police officers, Peruvians do not perceive that there is an effective government plan to fight crime, which day by day claims more lives in our country.


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