The mass killing at a Monterrey casino, thought to be linked to a protection racket, draws attention to the growth in Mexico's extortion rates, which have more than doubled during Calderon’s presidency.
Organized criminal networks in Mexico demand extortion payments from businesses and individuals, including migrants, teachers and priests, and few enterprises are exempt from the threat. According to statistics gathered from across the country, there have been more than 24,000 official reports of extortion since President Calderon came to power in 2006.
The non-profit research organization Mexico Evalua conducted a detailed analysis of the statistics released by Mexico’s National Public Security System, and determined that rates of extortion have increased by a large margin in the last five years in a number of states, including Chihuahua, San Luis Potosi, Tabasco and Tamaulipas. According to analysis by the newspaper Excelsior, President Calderon’s home state of Morelos, southwest of the capital, has the highest reported rates of extortion in the country, with 34 complaints per 100,000 residents, followed by Durango, Baja California, Chihuahua, and Jalisco. (See Excelsior's map, below.)
Many of these states are hotspots for criminal gang activity, and have experienced some of the country’s worst violence in the last five years. Chihuahua topped the charts as the state with the most murders in 2010, while Durango, Tamaulipas, Jalisco and Baja California all featured in the top 10.
Extortion is a product of a general climate of insecurity. Because many Mexicans lack confidence in government’s ability to provide security, and distrust the police, threats of violence are an effective way to extract regular payments from citizens and businesses. A protection racket occurs when organized crime groups carry out extortion activities at regular intervals, often accompanied by the threat of violence, in order to control a particular market or territory. In Ciudad Juarez, an industrial border city in the northern state of Chihuahua, which suffers Mexico’s highest murder rate, an estimated 80 percent of food vendors are regularly extorted for amounts ranging from $50 to $500. Rather than report the crime to police, who have occasionally been implicated in extortion rings, or risk violent reprisals from criminals, many small business owners unable to pay the "cuota" have chosen to close their doors.
It is safe to assume that actual extortion rates are much higher than those reported. Because of the cartels' willingness to carry out violent acts, victims often cede to the demand for payment and avoid reporting the crime. Mexico’s Citizen's Institute for the Study of Insecurity (ICESI) estimates that the unreported incidence, or 'cifra negra' (get ICESI's report in pdf here), for extortion may be as high as 85 percent (get ICESI's report in pdf here). Although the reported extortion rate in Chihuahua is 13 per 100,000 people, the actual rate, including the cifra negra, is estimated at closer to 1 in 100.
The growth in extortion rates is, in part, a product of President Calderon’s approach to fighting the cartels, which has shaken up the dynamics of organized crime in Mexico. Calderon’s administration has focused on taking out the leaders of major drug trafficking organizations -- an approach known as the kingpin strategy. This has caused Mexico’s underworld to fragment, with many smaller groups in place of the old, hegemonic cartels. As these multiple factions fight for a share of drug trafficking market, they are forced to move into other criminal activities, like extortion, to fund themselves.
According to Excelsior, the Zetas are responsible for the majority of reported extortions, including the attack on Casino Royale in Monterrey, which was reportedly carried out after the owner refused to pay the weekly cuota of approximately $11,000 dollars. Extortion cells aligned with the drug trafficking organization the Familia extract regular payments from from miners, farmers and business owners, with extortion threats often made over the phone by criminals in prison.
The Mexican government cannot fight the plague of criminal extortion by sending in the military. More effective would be institutional reform to convince the public that they can trust the police, and report extortion demands.