Schools shuttered in Acapulco show impact of Mexican drug gangs on civilians

Schools in the city shut their doors for weeks after teachers became extortion targets for Mexican drug gangs.

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    Parents and teachers hang up a banner on the gates of a school in the Pacific resort city of Acapulco, Mexico on Monday. The banner reads in Spanish "To the School Community: Due to the great insecurity we are living, and since authorities are not giving teachers, parents, students and the community in general the sufficient security, we have decided to continue the work stoppage until security conditions are more favorable."
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The targeting of teachers in the port city of Acapulco is a symptom of the increasing victimization of civilians by Mexico's drug gangs, and could spark a backlash.

The extortion demands against the Acapulco teachers were first made known through a "narcomanta," or banner hung by drug gangs, found in late August. The message demanded that teachers hand over half of all their salaries, and that schools give a list of staff and their current pay scale.

In response to the threat, and the government's perceived inability to protect them, thousands of teachers refused to show up for work, forcing hundreds of schools to close. According to El Universal, some 50,000 students have had their studies interrupted as a result.

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After weeks of pleas for help from local officials and growing media attention, the federal government has dispatched more than 100 federal troops to patrol the rougher areas of the city. While authorities claim that 90 percent of the shuttered schools have reopened, a minority remain closed.

This is not the first time teachers have been subject to threats from organized crime. A handful of reports have surfaced over the past couple of years – such as in Monterrey in 2008, or last year in Juarez – of demands that teachers hand over their "aguinaldo," the Christmas bonus (worth one paycheck) that formal employees receive in Mexico. However, the Acapulco threats were more extensive, and have had bigger consequences.

Teachers may not seem like a logical target for extortion, but for a small-scale criminal group operating in a poor area without many profitable commercial enterprises, they serve as an enticing source of cash. Experienced teachers often make 15,000 or 20,000 pesos a month (currently a range of roughly $1,100 to $1,450), so if everyone in a school with a teaching staff of 30 handed over 5,000 pesos, it would represent a significant haul.

The Acapulco upset reflects a couple of broader trends in Mexican security. The first is the growing role of extortion. Reliable figures regarding extortion are hard to come by, but a recent report using data from Mexico’s Justice Department said that there had been 24,000 extortion complaints during the administration of President Felipe Calderon, with more than 200 of them involving physical attacks stemming from a refusal to pay. Guerrero was among the states with the largest number of extortion complaints; Chihuahua, the border state that houses Juarez, came in first. Other reports indicate an even more widespread problem. In 2009, the Secretariat of Public Security reported 50,000 extortion complaints on an annual basis.

With either figure, however, the true extent of the problem is likely understated, as neither victims nor perpetrators have much of an incentive to report crimes.

The Acapulco school closures also demonstrate organized crime's growing impact on Mexican civilians, as demonstrated by the general rise in extortion and kidnapping. The specific targeting of teachers is not entirely new, but it does represent a clear step beyond the targeting of wealthy businessmen, more traditional victims for kidnappers and extortionists. Furthermore, teachers are more reflective of the society as a whole, and more likely to provoke sympathy than, for instance, the owners of the Casino Royale, which suffered an attack in August that left 52 people dead.

The teachers are also more organized; with an estimated 1.4 million members, the teacher’s union in Mexico is the largest union of any kind in Latin America, and one of the most powerful political forces in the country. Should teachers continually suffer extortion attempts, it will likely generate a significant backlash against the groups responsible.

The threats against the teachers comes amid a broader decline in security in Acapulco. As InSight Crime has noted, Acapulco is among a few famous tourist areas wracked by organized crime violence, with 650 murders in the city through July. Earlier this month, five severed heads were placed outside of an elementary school in Acapulco in what some believe to be part of the campaign against the teachers.

The city has long been a target for different drug gangs. For much of the Calderon administration, the two principal groups fighting for the area were the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas. However, infighting within those organizations, especially the breakdown in relations between the Sinaloa bosses and the Beltran Leyva Organization, have helped open the field to a number of new players. The two best known of the newly emerging gangs are the Independent Cartel of Acapulco and the South Pacific Cartel.

It is not clear which gang is behind the extortion threats; the banners initially threatening the teachers were not signed by any group, which fed suggestions that the authors were not part of the largest networks. While many of the most notorious Mexican gangs rely on extortion, smaller bands also take advantage of the climate of insecurity, sometimes by passing themselves off as larger gangs.

--- Patrick Corcoran is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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