In Guayaquil, criminal groups have long demanded money from businesses in exchange for "protection" or "security" services. Since 2000, police say the practice has spread to Quito and Cuenca and that the number of cases is increasing, said reports.

Extortionists frequently refer to their services as "vaccines" since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A representative of a gang typically contacts a company owner and wants ongoing payments in exchange for a promise that the establishment won't be attacked by criminals. In some cases, owners and their families are personally threatened.

A spokesman for a Quito restaurant association, Diego Vivero, says the extortion of businesses is nothing new.

“In the past, our members were able to ignore most of the demands although some paid small amounts of money in the belief that it was going to help poor families,” Vivero said.

“Today, the threats come from organized groups often connected to the drug trade and these threats are much more serious and often aimed directly at owners and their families. In the past, we were worried about theft and vandalism. Now we worry about our personal safety,” he added.

According to National Police statistics, in the first nine months of 2022, more than 2,000 Guayaquil firms received extortion threats, up from 1,236 in 2021 and 978 in 2020.

Figures were not available for Quito but Vivero says he knows of more than 200 cases. “The figures do not account for all cases, since many owners are afraid to make an official report.”

Business owners in Cuenca also say they are seeing an increase in threats, although most say they are not connected to drug gangs.

The National Police command in Quito urges business owners to resist paying protection money. “Once the practice begins, there may be no end to it,” says spokesman Paul Gonzalez.

Azuay Province Governor Matías Abad says he takes the threats seriously. “We have met on several occasions with the police command and tourism officials and are serious about protecting local businesses,” he says. He also says that the Feria Libre and Calle Larga are the main locations for the cases that he is aware of.

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