Petty extortion has plagued business in Mexico City for years, but the recent killing of a local community leader angry at authorities’ inaction underscores the growing brazenness of such criminal activity in the capital.
Extortion in Mexico City increased by 127 percent during the first three months of 2019 in comparison to the same time period last year, Proceso reported. This rise in extortion is in part related to the diversification of local criminal groups, primarily the Unión de Tepito, one of the capital city’s main criminal actors.
Just last month, hundreds of local shopkeepers signed a letter pleading for authorities in the capital to take action against extortion and other criminal activities carried out by the powerful Unión de Tepito. The leader of the association, Raymundo Pérez López, warned in the letter that if nothing is done, shopkeepers may be forced to form a self-defense group to protect themselves.
However, López was quickly silenced. Armed men shot him seven times and killed him as he got into his car a little more than a week after he demanded authorities take action. This was only one of several recent killings in an increasingly dangerous Mexico City. Homicides have increased by 25 percent this year, something that experts have attributed to gangs fighting for control of territory.
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Criminal groups are expanding their operations into wealthier parts of the city like Cuauhtemoc, and demanding even greater amounts, sometimes up to 50 thousand pesos per week (around $2,600). In the past, cartels have utilized the “gota a gota” method, in which loans are offered at very high interest rates, and business owners physically threatened to pay up. This has provided a steady revenue stream for the cartels and the success of this racket has led them to expand their extortion activities, as evidenced by recent reports.
Their moves into more affluent areas of Mexico City and the sharp increase in amounts being demanded demonstrate that the cartels feel that they can get away with such activities without suffering any repercussions. The lack of government response adds to the impression of such impunity.
Indeed, López was publicly threatened and asked for police protection but was denied it and subsequently assassinated. The crime is being blamed on another merchant, but such announcements need to be carefully scrutinized as the local government has in the past tried to downplay acts of cartel violence within Mexico City.
The cartels have targeted business leaders before. The Unión de Tepito is already suspected of killing at least 10 business owners for refusing to pay up. The brazenness of the cartels could also be attributed to changes at the national level.
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President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador’s declaration that the “drug war is over” and that the government would not be targeting cartel leaders seems to have emboldened criminal groups cartels. And when the federal government has attempted to intervene against the cartels in a meaningful way, the response has been bellicose. Both the Arellano Félix Organization, also known as the Tijuana Cartel, and the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel have issued threats against the president this year.
The mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, has pledged to double down on the government’s efforts to fight violence and extortion. But with her focus being so far on the smaller "gota a gota" extortion racket, it remains to be seen if these efforts will be directed the right way.