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Economy of Fear: Everyday Occurances of Extortion in Europe

Anne Passow (rar)September 2, 2006

No longer limited to the stereotyped Italian mafia groups, money extortion is becoming more present in other European countries -- including Germany.

Mafia-like organizations have been operating in GermanyImage: APGraphics

One recent day, two men in leather jackets showed up at Jörg K.'s Bistro. While one of them set fire to a napkin with a cigarette lighter, the other offered the owner private protection for the premises -- naturally at a high price.

This scene was not taking place in Italy, the traditional territory for the Mafia, but in Germany. Like many organized crime groups throughout the world, which use blackmail to come into money quickly and maintain control over entire business sectors, Mafia-style organizations are running large-scale protection rackets in Germany, which operate by gangs spreading fear and demanding silence. This strategy means that victims are kept under control, while keeping police at bay.

Extortion groups operating across Europe

60 Jahre Danach - Bildgalerie - Paris 05/20
The hospitality industry is a target for European extortion racketsImage: dpa

According to an independent security advisor from the German town of Krefeld, Roland Krichel, these extortion gangs operate especially in densely-populated areas like Berlin, Hamburg, the Ruhr Valley and the Rhein-Main region.

Krichel, a security consultant for businesses, is regularly approached by people working in the hospitality industry who are being blackmailed. He said he has observed that the extortion gangs have divided up the territories amongst themselves.

''The main tool of extortion is fear,'' Krichel said. ''They attempt to engender fear and tell people, 'You do this, or something will happen, we'll see that you business can't operate' -- usually through violence or bringing in the wrong kinds of guests.''

This sends a clear signal while the extortionists remain safe from punishment by law enforcement agencies because they have not openly threatened or harmed anyone.

Blackmailing is difficult to prove

Leere Kasse, klamme Finanzen
Protection money can bankrupt a businessImage: dpa

Krichel said the police are unaware of the blackmailing, which means extortion activities have gone unnoticed and it is difficult to change the state of affairs, because it is almost impossible to prove there has been a crime.

For example, a local business owner is compelled to hire a bouncer, for 100 euros ($128) per hour or to regularly make generous contributions to a certain organization. The extorted money is camouflaged through contributions or a work contract so that can nothing be proved.

The blackmailed person is quite anxious as the blackmailer can get angry if they find out that someone who they are extorting has broken their silence. He does not want to be named because his clients want him to remain anonyms.

"Extortion comes almost always with a milieu of other areas,'' Krichel said. ''Those involved with blackmailing for protection money almost always are also involved with forced prostitution and exploitation as well."

Paying protection money is a downward spiral

The head of the department for organized crime in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Roland Wolff, warned anyone who is being blackmailed, against not getting help.

Wolff said it can be a downward spiral that can quickly get out of control. Someone who pays protection money once will always have to do so. This can eventually ruin a business.

"Businesses must then pay for permanent security…which can bring the business into the problematic situation of having to pay so much protection money, that then business is no longer profitable," Wolff said.

But even if the person who is extorting is reported, it is difficult to prove that the blackmail is occurring. It is rare to have legal proceedings and convictions for protection money extortions, as the feelings of anxiety for the person being blackmailed continue during the legal proceedings.