Despite the pandemic’s economic fallout being felt throughout the Riviera Maya, cartels have continued their extortion schemes in Mexico's popular tourist destination, where their operations have grown to target everyone from local vendors to large businesses.
The breadth of cartel extortion schemes in the Riviera Maya was the focus of a report published in late September by Mexico Evalúa, one of Mexico's leading public policy think tanks. The report highlighted a sting in which Quintana Roo state policemen posed as employees and security guards of a business to uncover an extortion ring.
Officials investigated a group that collected derecho/cobro de piso (user rights), one of the 12 forms of extortion recognized by state authorities. The operation resulted in police stopping a van, designed to look like public transportation, carrying the group's members. All were arrested on charges of extortion.
From costumed characters to high-end hotels and restaurants, everyone is a target of this widespread extortion. According to James Tobin, a member of the National Public Security Council, the extortion prices range from around 200 pesos (about $10) a day for individual vendors to anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 pesos ($1,200 to $4,900) for larger businesses.
According to Mexico Evalúa, the primary groups responsible for extortion in the area are the country's two most powerful criminal groups, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), as well as local group the Pelones. However, common criminals have also been known to pose as cartel members to shake down local businesses.
InSight Crime Analysis
While the pandemic has slowed the tourism-based economy throughout the Riviera Maya, cartel extortion schemes have not only continued to grow but spread to target nearly all local businesses.
In Quintana Roo, derecho/cobro de piso ranks among the most common extortion methods, according to the state’s Secretary of Public Security, Lucio Hernández.
The state of Quintana Roo had the second highest rate of extortion complaints per 100,000 residents in 2020, according to the Quintana Roo Security and Gender Observatory (Observatorio de Seguridad y Género de Quintana Roo - Osege). In the first semester of this year, cases have been reduced by 62 percent, but 911 calls related to this crime in the same period have increased by 49 percent.
Yet, almost 99 percent of extortion cases go unreported.
The reasons for the lack of reports by victims of extortion are two-fold: a fear of reprisal and a distrust of the authorities. In this context, testimonies collected by these Mexico Evalúa investigations provide significant insight into the victims of these extortion schemes.
They also illustrate how these extortion schemes are being carried out – from threats over the phone to in-person visits to businesses, often involving intimidation or violence toward employees.
However, the prevalence of extortion schemes is not just unique to Quintana Roo, as Mexico Evalúa has also investigated and analyzed extortion case studies in the states of Chihuahua, Michoacán, and Baja California.
Nationally, there were nearly one million cases of extortion recorded in 2020 – with 1,821 out of every 10,000 businesses victimized. It's estimated that extortion costs the Mexican economy an average of 226,000 million pesos ($11.3 million) annually, or approximately 1.25 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).