While the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel has faced the brunt of the Mexican government’s war against oil theft, it has used its remaining clout in the state of Guanajuato to fall back on another successful criminal economy: intimidation and extortion.
The cartel’s move into extortion first caught headlines in September when eight of its members were arrested for extorting tortilla and taco restaurants in Celaya, Guanajuato, reported Televisa. Authorities also allegedly discovered the gang's main operation center, seizing money, computers, weapons and vehicles, as well as records of the businesses they had been extorting. The findings showed that the gang was also active in extortion in other cities in the state, including Salamanca and Villagran.
Carlos Zamarripa, the Attorney General of Guanajuato, told the press that “our analysts are now processing documents and spreadsheets with lists of victims and shops.”
These arrests came after a series of attacks on tortilla bakeries and restaurants in Guanajuato, stretching back to August. According to owners of tortilla shops in the city, the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel ask for one-time payments of between 30,000 and 500,000 pesos ($1,500-$26,000) as well as monthly payments of 3,000-5,000 pesos ($150-260), reported El Sol del Bajio.
A series of attacks in Celaya in August appeared linked to these extortion tactics. Armed attacks at two establishments resulted in the death of four people and left one person wounded, reported Milenio. At the Indita restaurant at Lake Zirahuén, gunmen opened fire, killing three women who were working at the establishment. The fourth victim was a customer at a construction materials shop on the Panamerican highway. Another attack at the Perlita tortilleria ended up causing damage to property, but no casualties were reported.
This led to a widespread strike among tortilla shops in Celaya, with many of them shutting down to protest the violence against them.
Guanajuato, one of Mexico’s industrial heartlands, has seen extortion of restaurants, butcher shops, and other businesses skyrocket of late. But homicide rates have also doubled since 2017, largely as a consequence of the war between the Jalisco Cartel and CSRL, and the government’s muscular intervention as a result. While the state saw 1,084 homicides in 2017, that number had already reached 2,000 by September 2019, reported Animal Politico.
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Despite promising not to go after the cartels, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made it a priority to bring the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel down, due to their dependence on oil theft. By July 2019, authorities had reportedly arrested or killed 62 suspected cartel collaborators in Guanajuato. But the cartel was formed and rose to power inside this state, making it no surprise that it has since pivoted to other criminal economies such as extortion.
Born out of a coalition of local gangs to fight the encroaching Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel has deep roots in much of Guanajuato. Despite being relatively unknown at the time, it allegedly warned the president in January to remove security forces fighting oil theft in the area or people would die. The note that was left near the Pemex refinery in Salamanca and was seemingly signed by José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, alias “El Marro,” the leader of the cartel. Despite the crackdown, El Marro remains at large.
In March 2019, state and federal armed forces launched operation Golpe de Timón against Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel. However, villages torched vehicles, blocked roads, and impeded the execution of search warrants.
Nevertheless, Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel’s strength is localized, and is not believed to have diverse revenue streams. While the government has targeted its oil theft operations, extortion has provided a relatively easy alternative.