22 | MAY | 2019
In May 2012 organized crime set on fire trucks and warehouses of Sabritas in Guanajuato and Morelia. (Photo: Archive / EL UNIVERSAL)

Criminals torch shops of those who refuse to pay extortion money

Daniela Guazo
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From 2008 to 2015 the press documented at least 230 fires in 23 states in which organized crime was involved.

When a luxury SUV with more than four men arrives at a business, both owners and employees know what it means. The operation is simple: they descend from the vehicle, ask for the person in charge and deliver a paper with a number written on it. From then on, the owners are expected to pay extortion money to organized crime.

Refusal can bring different consequences: murder, kidnapping or getting the business set on fire. The scene is familiar for many Mexican entrepreneurs: from 2008 to 2015 the press documented at least 230 fires in 23 states in which organized crime was involved.

Gyms, restaurants, night clubs, stationery stores, garages, drugstores and even small coffee shops are on the list of businesses torched by crime. On average, 30 such incidents are registered every year.

Until 2009 Javier, who asked to use a pseudonym for security reasons, lived outside of Mexico and ran his four businesses in Ciudad Juárez from afar until one of his employees called him to describe a scene that he had only seen on TV crime series.

He was informed that an armed group arrived to one of his businesses and demanded the presence of the owner. They were warned that if they did not pay extortion money, they would be killed.

Forced by the situation, Javier returned home. Ten days after his arrival, a group of men arrived in a van to one of his businesses and sprayed the place with gasoline. The fire only damaged only a small area and Javier did not correlate the incident with the previous threats, because "extortion did not exist in the city hitherto," he explained.

A month later criminals returned to one of its businesses. They approached the security guards and gave them a folded paper for the owner that had a phone number and the amount he was supposed to pay written on it.

"They demanded US$30,000 just to 'let me' keep working," Javier added.

The kind of extortion varies according to the criminal organization behind it. For example, "La Familia Michoacana charged for safety," said security expert Gabriel Regino. Fear makes crime very profitable, he explained.

Some of the businesses affected by this type of crime are: La Finca bar, the night clubs Rodeo Discotheque and Vaqueras y Broncos, as well as the car seller Autos Nacionales in Chihuahua and the bars La Sirenita and El Refugio de los Mandilones in Morelos.

Also, trucks and warehouses of Sabritas have been torched in Guanajuato and Morelia as well as Coca-Cola trucks in Guerrero.

Moreover, 300 drugstores asked to pay extortion money had to close in Guerrero, Tamaulipas, State of Mexico and Michoacán from 2010 to 2015.

The "fee" varies from 5,000 to 25,000 pesos, according to Juvenal Becerra, chairman of the National Union of Drugstore Owners (Unefarm).

Small businesses remain the most vulnerable. In the first half of 2015, 18 fires were reported, 14 of which happened in businesses that do not have sufficient security measures such as small shops, convenience stores and garages. All were victims of extortion.

According to the 2014 National Business Victimization Survey (ENVE) there were 412,538 documented extortion cases against businesses in 2013, 94% of which were not reported to authorities. Micro and small enterprises was the hardest hit.


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