The Personal Cost Of Extortion In Mexico

By Lorne Matalon
June 20, 2013

Audio Clip

Cost Of Extortion

OJINAGA, MEXICO - There has been a major increase in the number of businesses reporting extortion attempts in Mexico, according to a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico (PDF).

The Chamber’s new survey says the number of its member businesses reporting extortion is already twice this year what it was in 2012.

The following is a conversation about extortion and what it is like trying to run a business in Mexico. This is a first-person account, and this individual’s claims could not be independently verified.

LORNE MATALON: I’m in a car with a source, someone who has contacts with Mexican criminals and the military, not to mention government types. That’s not particularly unusual. In Mexico, almost everyone knows people who straddle the law. I’ve known him for a long time. I’ve never understood exactly why he shares what he knows, what’s in it for him. But he’s been right every time.

The only way to describe him is that he commutes between Juarez and Ojinaga, the dusty sepia-toned border town opposite Presidio, Texas. He has what seems like a legitimate business and a US visa he uses to shuttle between Chihuahua and Texas. I can’t use his name for obvious security reasons.

He insisted that he pick me up the second I cross into Mexico. As we talk, he answers as he always does. You have to know everyone. And that means honest citizens and criminals who run swaths of Mexico. But before we can talk about who is doing what to whom — we turn a corner and are suddenly funneled by soldiers into a Mexican military checkpoint. The first soldier says, ‘We’re looking for drug traffickers.’

Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Mexico

Wasted effort, says the source, "Porque ellos saben donde estan y no atacan.”

"They know exactly where the narcos are and they don’t attack them," he says. He starts another thought in English.

"Do you think a narco, someone, up to no good is going to sit in this line to be checked ? They’re can do what they want, where they want," he says.

The soldier true to his word when he said this search won’t take much time. He asks if we speak Spanish.

"No, we are tourists," the man tells the soldier.

I exit the car. When the soldier courteously asks if he can search my recording gear, I ask him what is he looking for.

"Guns more than anything," he says.

We’re finally in my contact’s office reviewing that survey from the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico. The Chamber represents US, Mexican and other foreign owned companies. The headline? Extortions of the chamber's member businesses in Mexico by organized crime is already twice this year what it was 2012.

He describes how colleagues in Juarez got a call — from a stranger — two weeks ago.

“They don’t say anything, just this call and then they gave another call with different numbers, secret number. Then they say ‘gimme the money,’ then how much and then you have to pay. If they don’t pay they put the fire and they shoot persons inside and outside the business building,” he says.

The new President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto promised one thing. He said he’d change the national conversation in Mexico away from insecurity to the economy. But the source says little has changed with the new government.

"I think it never change because they exist, the kidnapping, exist the cartels, exist the police with all their corruptions. If it is a good business, they make a call and they have kidnapping and they have extortion. They have killed persons and everything. I think it never change."

He continues, “They say they are controlling extortion, so they come with soldiers and the police. But they’re mix in with it, the cartel, the police and the soldiers. They are all together in their business.”

Meaning many honest Mexican business owners have one option.

“They have to close their business and move to another site," he says. 'If they’re not murdered first."

"Let’s say two cartel people are fighting. Before they’d only attack each other," he says.

"Not now," he says, especially since the previous President Felipe Calderon, took on the cartels. Now he says, even the target’s family dies. That’s the difference today.

The survey can’t answer the one question that matters; are businesses in Mexico now more willing to report extortion? — or — are criminals getting better at extorting?

The man says, “The answer doesn’t matter — all business plans include the cost of corruption."