Nine held in car thefts that involved extortion

Investigators detained nine persons Thursday and said they were members of an extortion car ring that had been taking cars on the pretext of taking them for a test drive. Two of those involved already are in prison, and agents said they ran the ring via cell telephones.

Agents had been pursuing the case for seven months, said the Judicial Investigating Organization. Detentions were made in San Antonio de Coronado, Granadilla Norte, Purral de Guadalupe and Barrio Cuba as well as La Reforma prison in Alajuela.

Agents confiscated 14 stolen vehicles and found 12 cell telephones and chips at the prison, they said. The phones, all TDMA types, had been smuggled into the prison.

The gang targeted those who had listed their vehicle for sale in the classifieds of a newspaper or on the Internet. They would meet the seller at a mechanic’s shop or similar. When the seller was not paying attention or on the pretext of a test drive, the supposed buyer would drive off with the car.

That is when one of the imprisoned leaders would call the individual on the cell telephone to offer a return of the car for money. Some car owners paid but the vehicle was not returned. The amount varied by the type of car.

Agents said that a policeman was involved with the gang and was providing information about the vehicles and the owners.

Investigators have at least 23 complaints from persons who lost their cars. Others may have paid and never reported the crime. More arrests are possible.

The prison system has devices to prevent convicts from making calls on GSM-style cell phones. But the older TDMA phones are not impeded by the system.

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