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It was 8 a.m. on March 11 when I was awoken by a call on my cell phone. “Is that Mr. Mitchell?” a man asked, in Spanish. Yes, I said. In a serious voice, the man told me he was calling on behalf of the local commander of the regional paramilitary force. His boss was afraid that a group of people wanted to harm me. His chief could protect me, the man said, if I handed over 100,000 bolivares ($15,900 at the official exchange rate, $1,540 at the black market rate). To rub in the gravity of the threat, he proceeded to tell me a series of intimate details about me that only a tiny number of people know. Shaken, I put the phone down.

I immediately went to visit a well-connected friend, let’s call him Pedro, who sides with the government politically. Pedro runs a travel agency in the center of Mérida, the beautiful Andean city (metro area population 350,000) where I have lived for the past three and a half years. As soon I started telling him my story, he knew exactly where it was heading. Two years ago he had been the victim of a similar extortion attempt. As we were talking in his office, I received another call from the extortionist, who asked why I had hung up earlier. I said I did not want to speak to him and was going to the police. He asked me which branch. I did not respond and hung up.

Pedro told me to stay calm and took me to visit some of his friends with the National Intelligence Service, called Sebin. In the parking lot of their building, I met two hard-looking men. When I began telling my story, they laughed as soon as I said that the caller claimed he was acting on behalf of the paramilitary commander. Apparently, this line is used a lot in extortion attempts. The agents did not even bother to take down the caller’s number. If he called again, they advised, I should be aggressive and tell him to get lost. Later Pedro told me that those Sebin agents had a reputation of taking half the stolen goods of the people they arrested, and beating up the people “in their care.”

I tried to remain calm throughout the day despite getting another five calls from the extortionist, none of which I answered. That evening I went with friends for dinner in one of Mérida’s best restaurants, La Chistorra. The journey normally takes only 10 minutes from my apartment, but this night it took 45 minutes.