Mexico's rising threat: extortion

Mexico state, which features many poor Mexico City suburbs, reports of extortion jumped 58 percent between 2012 and 2013. Some say it's driving away business investment.

Edgard Garrido/Reuters
A man gestures during a march by members of the community police, or vigilantes, of Michoacan state to commemorate the first anniversary of their founding in Tepalcatepec February 24. In violence-racked Michoacan, an impoverished agricultural state about 1-1/2 times the size of Switzerland, vigilantes are battling a cartel called the Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar, for control of swathes of the failing state.

When the phone rang at a small community center in a poor Mexico City suburb, the voice on the other end of the line belonged to a member of the criminal group, La Familia Michoacana – or so the caller claimed. He was demanding money, and when the director of the center, Raúl Solís Pineda, said he had none, the extortionist said he wasn't asking for "millions" and that Mr. Solís Pineda must pay.

This type of call is common in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, or Neza, as the locals refer to it. The poor municipality is located in the State of Mexico, which wraps around three sides of Mexico City. It had the highest number of reported extortions in 2013 – a year when that crime surged in the country as a whole. 

Although Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto has pointed to successes in his country’s fight against organized crime, extortion has become more common, as has kidnapping. In fact, the number of reported incidences for both of these crimes was higher in 2013 than any other year in the last decade. The small sums frequently demanded in these anonymous calls, as well as their unknown origin, often mean police are slow to react – if they pursue the allegation at all.

Some citizens have responded by taking up arms against criminal organizations, most notably in the state of Michoacán. After receiving his extortion threat, Solís Pineda also decided to respond – but with the law, rather than guns.

There were 8,042 cases of extortion reported in Mexico in 2013, up from 7,272 a year earlier, according to statistics from Mexico's federal government. In the State of Mexico, which features numerous poor Mexico City suburbs, there were 1,668 reported cases, a 58 percent increase from 2012.

Data from January indicates the increase is ongoing, with the extortion rate nearly matching 2013 for both the country and the State of Mexico. Tracking crime is an imperfect science, statisticians acknowledge, because victims may become more or less willing to report an incident from one year to the next. But for Solís Pineda, "all the time, there's more insecurity, more fear" in his community.

In contrast, the country's murder rate dropped more than 16 percent in 2013, according to government statistics, as turf wars between cartels lessened in areas such as the northern border city of Juarez.

"There has been progress [in Mexico], a real decrease of almost 30 percent for homicides linked to organized crime," President Peña Nieto said in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He did not mention incidents of extortion or kidnapping.

The government’s National Security Commission operates an emergency hotline whose website asks anyone who has been a victim of a crime to contact them. After the threat at the community center, Solís Pineda says he did, but the operator told him to call again when he had something bigger to report.

"They simply ignored it," Solís Pineda says.  

Economic reverberations

The victims aren't always typical targets. Thirty students from the University of La Salle Nezahualcóyotl dropped out of school in January after enduring extortion and kidnapping threats the previous semester, according to a report from the Mexican newspaper El Universal.

Extortion has real economic impact, says Francisco Rivas, the director of Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano, a Mexico City-based think tank that studies crime and security. In a report published last month, Mr. Rivas wrote that extortion discourages community investment by small and medium-sized businesses.

“In addition, these illicit behaviors endanger regional and national economic development,” Rivas wrote. According to the report, “Analysis of Extortion in Mexico 1997-2013: Challenges and Opportunities," it isn’t just well-known organized criminal groups involved, but also smaller gangs, and in some cases, the police.

In Mexico, criminal gangs “have diversified their criminal portfolios and draw much of their income from local revenue sources such as drug peddling in the … local drug market and extortion," Steven Dudley, director of Insight Crime, which writes on organized crime in the Americas, told US Congress last year.

Getting 'desperate?'

For Solís Pineda, simply hoping extortion dies down isn’t an option, and he is now working to goad Nezahualcóyotl residents into action. After the federal police dismissed his report, Solís Pineda drafted a petition demanding an official response to the increasing insecurity in his city.

He cited kidnappings and shootings, in addition to extortion, collected 103 signatures – out of Nezahualcóyotl’s million-plus residents – and submitted the petition to the city’s mayor.

“It’s not an isolated incident, it’s a social problem,” he says.

City police officers met with him two weeks later, but the focus was on his individual allegation – not the bigger problem. He’s now urging residents to call on all levels of the government to take action.

“Are you going to allow the different branches of the government to let this situation get as desperate as in Michoacán?" the letter asks, referring to the state where vigilante groups rose up against criminal gangs in a vacuum of state involvement this year.  

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