11/29/11—Early last week, in the middle of an advice segment on how to succeed in business, W Radio Mexico received a surprising call. The listener explained that he had already built a successful enterprise, a group of taco restaurants in Chilpancingo, Guerrero. Now, however, he needed expert advice on how to react to demands by organized crime groups for large sums of money known as “protection” pay-offs (pago de derecho de piso). The demands came backed by a not-so-veiled threat that his “protectors” would be the first to harm him, should the payments fall short.
The caller’s predicament is distressingly common in Mexico today, where, as Proceso details, 1.6 million Mexicans have abandoned their states of origin since 2006, “due to fear of violence, extortion, and organized crime in general.” As a consequence of protection payment extortion, over 6,000 businesses have uprooted and moved into Mexico City during the past two years, W Radio reports, transferring over 500 million pesos ($38.5 million U.S.) of investment capital away from outlying regions into the Federal District, and eradicating 200,000 jobs. Extortionists have targeted thousands of business people, industrialists, teachers, and doctors. Failure to comply with their demands has invoked such notorious consequences as the grenade attack of Casino Royale in Monterrey, Nuevo León earlier this year.
Although the W Radio caller from Chilpancingo represented a problem experienced by growing number of Mexicans today, what made him extraordinary was his willingness to go public with his experiences, albeit anonymously. The caller started his restaurants with seven associates some ten years back. As soon as the business started to do well, however, they started receiving the threatening phone calls, and seeing “strange vehicles following [them] around and taking [their] pictures.” Employees frequently sighted luxury SUV’s parked outside their restaurants, and owners received repeated phone calls to their personal cell phones, telling them “how many family members we had, where our children go to school, where each of us lives, what the house looks like, what time we leave the house and come home. In other words, they knew everything about us.” That’s how the criminal organizations “filled us with fear,” the caller explained, and “from that point on, we have had to make regular payments to ensure our safety.”
The partners initially made the payments that the criminal organizations asked of them, which started out at around $1,000 per week (10,000 Mexican pesos). They did not want to cooperate with criminals, but the organizations sent sicarios (hitmen) and secuestradores (kidnappers) around to change their minds, the caller explained. Also, the caller felt reluctant to endanger his business, having “put so much money into it,” employees on his payroll, and countless hours into serving his customers. On the other hand, he wondered “what the point” was “of working twelve hours a day so that some other person, in this case an armed person, could come and threaten to kidnap or kill me, and take away the profits that I had put everything I had into earning.”
At first, the caller explained, “you think about your children and you think about your family,” he said, “and, well, you think that if you do it, then it’s going to stop there, but no, it doesn’t, because a week later, it’s not ten thousand [pesos] any more, now it’s twenty thousand, and soon it’s fifty thousand.”
Now, of the eight partners that started the business together, only two are left. The rest made the initial payments, but as amounts increased, no longer found it worth-while to stay in business. So, they shut down their restaurants, and moved out of the state, most to Mexico City. The final two partners, himself and one other, are now on the verge of doing the same. “We are being extorted,” he explained, and “despite the fact that we have complained to the police.” They have reported to three different law enforcement agencies– state police (policía preventiva), federal police (policía judicial), and a state attorney general’s office (procuraduría del Estado)– and allegedly received no support. The authorities have responded that they are investigating, but the business partners have not yet seen “anything concrete” come out of having reported. As a complicating factor, the caller feels uncertain as to whether he can truly determine who is a genuine member of law enforcement in his city, and who may be just another sicario.
Since 2006, attorneys general in Mexico (ministerios públicos) have received complaints of 24,000 cases of extortion, about half of which involve protection payments. The actual number of cases, however, is estimated by Vanguardia to be about 90% higher than this. As Dr. Carlos R. Cordourier-Real, researcher at the Department of Law, Policy, and Government at the University of Guanajuato observes, Mexicans simply “do not report these threats, because they do not trust the judicial system: not only do they see only a very slim possibility that the crimes they report will be punished, but they are usually sure that the police involved are part of the criminal gangs.” As Dr. Cordourier-Real pointed out, according to the latest survey conducted by the Mexican think tank Instituto Ciudadano de Estudios Sobre la Inseguridad (ICESI), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), only 22% of extortion victims go to the police at all, and 32% do not because they believe it would just be “a waste of time.”
The practice of protection payment extortion is particularly pernicious to the rule of law in Mexico because, beyond the proliferation of general lawlessness, it allows a private, criminal entity to usurp the government in its rightful role as the sole guarantor of public safety. As such, this form of extortion works in multiple directions at once to erode the relationship between the public and the government. This perpetuates a vicious cycle, because the further the public trust in its government falls, the more vulnerable its citizens become to extortion. Under Dr. Cordourier-Real’s analysis, “the well-grounded idea” among Mexican citizens “that there’s overwhelming impunity” is one of the major factors that has allowed these extortions to spread. Until state judiciary systems in Mexico, under whose jurisdiction these crimes fall, can improve their credibility locally, it may be difficult to halt this trend.
To follow up on the Chilpancingo listener’s call, W Radio promised to seek a response from a representative of operation Guerrero Seguro (Safe Guerrero), an ongoing security campaign by Guerrero law enforcement in coordination with federal police forces. Government officials have recently touted Guerrero Seguro as a model for success, crediting it with a 77% reduction in crime in its Alcapulco target zone, and allowing tourism to return to its the beaches. Unfortunately, Guerrero Governor Ángel Aguirre Rivero admits that Guerrero Seguro’s effectiveness in Alcapulco may have also caused a “cockroach effect:” as intense police work clears Alcapulco, it may be pushing organized crime operators into other areas of Guerrero, such as Chilpancingo.
Listen to the interview with the anonymous W Radio caller here (in Spanish).
Cordourier-Real, Dr. Carlos R., Researcher at the Department of Law, Policy, and Government, Universidad de Guanajuato, Mexico. Interview with author. November 29, 2011.