Category Archives: Safety and Security

Prepping in Mexico –Extortion and Kidnapping

Extortion is being forced to do an activity like pay money or provide information by force, violence, trickery, or intimidation.  The prevalence of impunity found in most of Mexico allows the criminal organizations, usually with ties to the dominant cartel in the area, to literally get away with murder when it comes to extortion. In one survey, one out of every four participants had been a victim of extortion.

In 2017, 6.6 million cases of extortion of individuals were reported, while there were 525,000 cases of extortion against companies in the same time frame. Mexico’s National Agriculture Council estimates that more than $120 million is paid in extortion annually by farmers.

Some common extortion methods are:

Gota a Gota 

When a gota a gota (drop by drop) racket is set up, a small business owner or street vendors is given a high-interest rate loan by the organization to improve businesses or purchase merchandise. Initially, the interest rate verbally agreed upon might be 15-20%. However, the rate increases to 50% four weeks or so later. When business owners can not pay, they are threatened, robbed and attacked.

Mexican small business owners are extremely susceptible to this type of extortion because only about 39% of the population of Mexico has a bank account, a requirement to get a small business loan from a bank. Furthermore, experts estimate that 75 million people in the country have no access to financial services to start-up micro or small business, making a loan shark the only available option.

La Cuota

La cuota (cut) is money solicited from businesses, farmers, teachers, taxi drivers, street vendors and other merchants for “protection” at regular intervals. Nonpayment results in the destruction of property, violence, kidnapping or murder. Many who have been unable to pay have been forced to give up their business, sell their farms, or move away.

Cobro de piso or Derecho de piso

Business and vendors can also be solicited forcefully for a Cobro de piso or Derecho de piso which is understood as a “fee” to use the space the business is on to conduct business. This is not a rental fee, but additional extortion. Sometimes the victims are asked to pay money, other times they are forced to sell certain illegal items from their stalls or provide “favors” to certain individuals. For instance, a restaurant may pay the cobro de piso by allowing a certain mariachi band to perform instead of another. Or a taxi driver may pay for his derecho de piso by transporting drugs across the city.

Cártel del Tabaco

Associated with Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, the Cártel del Tabaco forces vendors and small business owners to sell Tobacco International Holdings (TIH) cigarettes by threatening their lives and livelihoods. First, the operatives pose as government representatives and conduct a raid on the establishment, seizing “forbidden” merchandise. The business is then served “official” documents that list the approved brands of cigarettes. Vendors who refuse have been tortured and killed.

La Mordida

La Mordida literally translates as “bite” and refers to money paid to a government official. You may be a potential victim of la mordida if you are pulled over for an imagined traffic violation. Even after presenting all your documentation, the officer may change the charge or threaten to impound your vehicle. La mordida also occurs in situations where you need certain official documents. Obstacles are created making it impossible for you to get these documents through any legal manner.

La mordida may be offered to the official with ¿No habrá otra manera? (Is there no other way?) or ¿Cómo nos podemos arreglar? (How can we reach an arrangement?).  The response to either question is the amount of the bribe necessary to fix the situation. Sometimes there is a bit of negotiation before the final price is agreed upon by both parties. The money is then transferred discretely, hidden in the pages of a pamphlet or beneath the “ticket.”

La Palanca

When La palanca (lever) is enacted, it usually does not involve money. Instead, it’s an exchange of favors. You can request la palanca from someone you know directly or from a person related to or known to someone you know. It is used by both sides to solve a problem which requires someone to intervene on your behalf. If someone has gone out of their way to assist you in this manner, then you are under obligation to return the favor at some unspecified time in the future.

La palanca can be created by giving a large donation to a political candidate with the idea that the donator will receive a large work contract when the candidate is elected. Another use of la palanca may occur when a family member needs emergency medical attention. As the process of obtaining adequate medical care can be a long and drawn-out procedure in Mexico, finding a palanca in the medical facility can speed things up substantially as well as provide for higher quality care.

Extorsión telefónica 

Extorsión telefónica can occur when you receive a call saying that someone you know needs X amount of money for X. The caller may imply that he or she knows you or your family member and hopes you will provide information about your location or family. The caller may have some information about your family even, convincing you this is a real situation. The caller will provide you with an account where you can deposit the money needed to pay the coyote (human smuggler), medical bill, or just money to help out. 

Secuestro Virtual

Secuestro virtual is a variant on extorsión telefónica. In this scenario, the caller claims to have kidnapped a family member. There may be someone in the background crying or screaming. In order for you to see your loved one again, X amount of money must be deposited in a certain account or sent through OXXO to X person. The caller threatens to harm your loved one if you contact the police or delay in sending the money. 


Secuestro is kidnapping and it doesn’t just happen to the wealthy. Secuestro exprés (express kidnapping) is the term used when a person is held for a low dollar amount ransom. You can become a victim of secuestro exprés if you get into a taxi that instead of taking you to your destination, takes you to an ATM and demands you withdraw a certain amount of money. Or you are taken somewhere and the kidnapper calls your family to collect a ransom.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that a victim of secuestro will be released even after the ransom is paid. Some estimate that at least 200 people are kidnapped in Mexico every day.

This is only a partial list of extortion schemes prevalent in Mexico.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that often police officers and government officials are involved in these extortion schemes, from the seemingly useful palanca to the more sinister secuestro.

What can you do to avoid becoming a victim of extortion? It really depends on the type of extortion scheme being played.

Although many “gringo” sites admonish you to never pay, if you are being solicited for money for whatever reason, it is really up to you to decide to pay or report it to the police. Bear in mind that Mexico has such a high rate of impunity that the chances of something actually being done about it are slim to none.

Once we were asked to pay an exorbitant mordida by the state police in Guanajuato. So that our vehicle was not impounded and we were not left on the side of the road miles from home, we paid the mordida. However, since all our vehicle registration papers, driver’s licenses, and identifications were in order, we went to the state police office to file a complaint. The man at the desk gave us a form to fill out which was forwarded to Guanajuato City for investigation.

During the two months that the case was under review, we were harassed by the state police nearly every time we ventured out. After the judge reviewed the case, he determined the two police officers involved were at fault. They were suspended for two weeks with pay as punishment.

If the extortion attempt is being made over the telephone, do not provide the caller with ANY information about you, your location or your family. Hang up. Contact the person who the caller said was injured or being held for ransom immediately. You can report extortion attempts in Mexico by calling 088 or by contacting the Centro Nacional de Atención Ciudadana @CEAC_SSPCMexico on Twitter.

A teacher I worked with was a victim of extorsión telefónica. She received a call during the school day saying that her college-aged daughter had been taken. She was directed to deposit $7,000 pesos into a specific account immediately for her daughter’s release. $7,000 pesos was more than two months’ wages for her. She was panicked when she called her daughter’s cell phone and couldn’t reach her. She left the school, raced to the bank, withdrew the cash, and sent it to the contact the caller had given her. It turned out that her daughter had not been kidnapped. She hadn’t answered her mother’s call because her phone was dead. However, the money was long gone and the family struggled the next few months to pay the bills. 

I also know people who have actually been kidnapped. Some were ransomed and released. Others had their ransoms paid but were killed anyway. And yet others were killed when their family could not come with the money to pay the kidnappers. It’s anyone’s guess how a kidnapping situation will turn out.

To avoid kidnapping, develop your situational awareness. Be cognizant of people watching you or taking your picture. Vary your daily routine. Keep your car locked and check the back seat before getting in. Use only taxis that are registered. Do not go out in public if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. They make you an easy target.

Walk with someone else. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes in case you need to run. Avoid areas that do not have many people or lights. Pay attention to your surroundings. Don’t listen to music or play around with your phone in public areas. Use the ATMs that are inside the banks and never use them after dark. Let someone know where you are at all times and when to expect you. Trust your gut reactions. If something appears suspicious, it probably is.

If someone attempts to kidnap you, make as much noise as possible to attract attention to your plight. If you have been kidnapped, stay alert and pay attention to your location and your captors.

¡Ten cuidado!

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Prepping in Mexico–Give a Wide Berth to Cartel Violence

We live in the state of Guanajuato, which has the dubious honor of having the highest number of homicides to start the year in 2020. The current issues stem from the hostile takeover of areas controlled by Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. The shoot-outs are sometimes random, and civilians are sometimes caught in the cross-fire.

On the other hand, some instances of cartel violence are targeted attacks. Extortion, kidnapping, and murder are the three primary methods of control. While most of the time the focus is on someone from a rival cartel, sometimes innocent family members are involved.

A high-profile incident occurred in 2019 when nine women and children were murdered in Chihuahua, all members of the La Mora Mormon community that has been in the area for decades. The Mexican government claimed the murders were a case of mistaken identity, however, both local police officers and cartel members have been arrested leading to the speculation that it was a targeted hit.

Mexican saying which translates as “They wanted to bury us, but they had forgotten we were seeds.” Original artwork by Clau Guzes

It should surprise no one that the cartel and certain officials of the Mexican government are in cahoots. The 43 teaching students that disappeared in 2014 were arrested by the police then turned over to the Guerreros Unidos cartel by whom they were tortured and murdered. The mayor of the town Iguala and his wife were later arrested for their involvement along with several high-ranking police officers. The bodies of 42 of these young men have not yet been found.

From 2006 to 2012, the cartel have been responsible for between 60,000 to 100,000 deaths in Mexico. Between 2007 and 2014, the Mexican government has been linked to 23,272 reported disappearances. Not all disappearances are reported because of the fear of repercussions, therefore, the actual number could be significantly higher. Mass graves throughout Mexico are the final resting place for the bodies of thousands of those who have disappeared either by order of the government or the cartel.

Ties between Mexico’s political party PRI and illegal drug traders can be traced to the beginning of the 20th century during the US period of Prohibition. The political, police and military infrastructure that was subsequently designed in Mexico was intended to support the cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana for export to the United States. The Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS) organization was formed to organize and control drug trafficking.

For decades, this system functioned without restriction. In the 1990’s PRI’s 70-year reign ended. The addition of new political players with no prior connection to the cartels upset the system. Sections of the Mexican government began to challenge the set-up. Thus began the government-sanctioned assassinations of drug-enforcement agents, governors, mayors, clergy, citizens, lawyers, judges, social activists and journalists. And there we have narcoterrorism in a nutshell. While cartels battle over territories, dissenters are silenced by the government.

Our family has been personally affected by cartel violence. My husband’s 25-year old nephew and a friend were taken from his home in our town after he was trespassing on a rival’s territory. His decomposing body was found outside a nearby village a month later. The other young man who was taken with him has not been found. Officially, the murder investigation is still open. However, we know that no one will be held accountable for his death.

Many young men and women that are recruited by the cartels are not willing participants. Cartels sometimes conduct raids on alcohol and drug rehab centers as a form of conscription. Other times the cartel itself is running a rehab center, making it that much easier to recruit vulnerable men and women.

Yet another way that the cartels add to their ranks is by kidnapping migrants from other Central and South American countries who are crossing Mexico with the hopes of claiming asylum in the United States. Approximately 20,000 migrants a year are kidnapped by the cartels in Mexico. Some are sold, some are murdered, and some are recruited.

If you find yourself in an area that is experiencing cartel violence, you may want to consider relocation. Mexico is a huge country and there are many areas, even those controlled by the cartel, where life is relatively peaceful. If you choose to remain in an area that has the potential for violence, you must develop your situational awareness.

Situational awareness is being aware of your surroundings. It involves identifying potentially dangerous situations. The first step in developing a situational awareness mindset is recognizing that there is a threat. These days, any activity you engage in, from grocery shopping to heading to a wedding, can become life-threatening if cartel violence breaks out in the area. Just because you yourself are not involved in drug distribution or trafficking does not mean that you are safe.

The second step in becoming situationally aware is to realize that you are responsible for your own security. The Mexican government is often involved with the cartel. Even if arrests are made, Mexico has an extremely high rate of impunity. Relying on the police is not a safe option.

Situational awareness does not mean you are hyperfocused to search out danger, every minute of every day. No one can maintain that level of vigilance. Rather, it refers to taking your surroundings into consideration as you go about your business. If you are in a restaurant, take note of the exits, for example. If you are walking, pay attention to sounds that indicate danger, like shooting or shouting, and take evasive action.

Practicing this state of relaxed awareness will help it to become second nature. The idea is to have a window of opportunity before a dangerous situation explores for you to take action to protect yourself. Being tired, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or being distracted will reduce your overall situational awareness and should be avoided as much as possible when you are in a potentially dangerous situation.

If a violent situation develops, get as far away from it as possible, as quickly as possible. Then stay away from the area for as long as it takes to return to some form of normalcy.

Situational awareness is something that even children can learn to develop. Back to the LeBaron incident, a 13-year old boy helped six of his siblings to safety, hid them in bushes and walked 14 miles to get help from relatives. He understood that the situation was deadly. He did not freeze in panic but took steps to ensure the safety of his younger brothers and sisters, who are alive today because of his efforts.

¡Cuídate mucho!

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Prepping in Mexico– Food Shortages and Famine

Mexico is one of the most megadiverse countries in the world. It is home to over 200,000 different plant and animal species. There are 707 known reptile species, 438 mammal species, 290 amphibian species and 26,000 different plant species. Mexico also has a great variety of ecosystems including desert, mountain, coastal, temperate and tropical climes. 

You would think that because of its extreme diversity, Mexico would not be at risk for crop failures, food shortages and famines. Unfortunately, that isn’t true. Governmental policies, climate change and dangerous internal conflicts have had detrimental effects on the crops produced in Mexico in the past and present. 

Historically, tree rings have indicated that severe droughts hit Mexico of the sixteenth century (1545-1600), 1752-1768,1801-1813, 1859-1868, and the 1950s causing food shortages in much of the country. Drought may have been the underlying cause of the political instability that destroyed pre-hispanic civilizations like those whose pyramids stand in Teotihuacan.  

The Codex Ramirez records a drought that lasted from 1450 to 1454 which caused a mass exodus from the center of Mexico. The Aztec Empire had a supply of maize to distribute however by 1454, the famine was so severe that the common people sold themselves or their children into slavery in record numbers of which many were sacrificed to elicit help from the rain dieties. 

The Spanish conquest did little to alleviate food shortages among the indigineous people of Mexico. Between 1521 and 1821, there were 88 drought periods. Although more advanced irrigations were set up by the Spanish, the crops were not evenly distributed among the inhabitants even as prices for meat and corn rose. In 1785, drought caused the starvation of more than 300,000 indigenous in Mexico. Historians have determined the colonial government was set up so that large landholders and merchants had the ability to price basic necessities out of the range of most of the population. 

This type of governmental setup remains alive and well in Mexico. Increasingly over the years, Mexico has become more dependent on imported goods from other countries. During periods of low food production, as happens when there is an extended drought, importation rates grow to make up the difference but at a higher price.

The shift in the focus of Mexican agriculture encouraged by the government, from drought resistant corn and bean varieties to forage and vegetable production, has placed a large demand on groundwater available. Additionally, the expansion of cities has redirected large amounts of water that previously had been used for crops to meet the needs of urban dwellers. 

Avocados are another crop that has periodic shortages, not because of drought, rather due to violence over control of the areas where this “oro verde” (green gold) grows. The state of Michoacan is the only one authorized to export this high-demand fruit. In 2018, the sale of avocados, mostly to the US, raked in more than $2.5 billion, which is more than the proceeds from petroleum. 

Many farmers have given up growing other produce to concentrate on the more lucrative low-hanging fruit trees. Large areas have been cleared to make room for even more trees. Crop diversity is at an all-time low in the area. Growers are dependent on the avocado crop and yet are forced to give a large portion of their profits to the cartel or risk not being able to sell any of it.

A different kind of event that caused food shortages in many areas was the restructuring of the gas distribution method in January 2019. The newly sworn in president AMLO closed the gas line pipes that run throughout Mexico in order to stop theft. However, there were not enough other ways to distribute the gas and areas in the interior of Mexico were without cooking and gas for vehicles for nearly two months until more vehicles were purchased to move the gas. The gas shortage meant that food delivery was intermittent or non-existent in some rural areas. 

Food shortages, whether they are short or long term, are difficult to manage if you haven’t prepared ahead of time. Here are a few suggestions on how best to get through.

Grow Your Own Food

Begin by growing some of your own food. If you have space, plant a garden. If our space is limited, try container gardening. Consider share-cropping to supplement your food supplies. Research which plants will provide food year-round or decide on two seperate planting sessions, one for the growing season, one for the dry.

In our area, corn is grown during the rainy season which begins in June. After the corn has been harvested, most areas are planted with garbanzo for a second crop instead of letting the field lay fallow until the following June. 

I grow a number of herbs which provide me with delightful teas and seasonings. They don’t take up much space and aren’t a lot of work. We also have several fruit trees and a blackberry bush for seasonal treats. 

Raise Animals

Chickens, ducks or quail can provide meat and eggs and don’t require a huge area. Rabbits can be raised for meat and again don’t need a lot of space. Goats are better than cows for milk production. They can forage their own food most of the year. Sheep and pigs are other smaller options but tend to be more labor intensive in my opinion. 

Forage, Barter, Hunt and Fish

There are probably more food sources that you can forage locally than you realize. We can find nopales (cactus), tunas and pitayas (prickly pears), mesquite, verdolaga (purslane), mushrooms, and guayabas easily by just walking around our rural community. We can also trade for locally grown squash, tomatoes, corn, melons, and beans. We even have a neighbor who is an apiarist for fresh, organic honey. 

Our area does not have any deer or turkey populations that can be hunted for food. However, there are squirrels, opossum, rabbits and pigeons which can be brought down with a slingshot and roasted over the fire. While these might not be your first choice in cuisine, it’s good to know there are options. We are also close to several large freshwater lakes, so fishing is yet another local food source for us. 

Stock Up

During harvest season, stock up on the fruit and vegetables that are available. Because of the surplus, they are typically less expensive than other times of the year. Find a way to preserve these items either by canning, freezing or dehydrating. 

Stock up on staples such as corn, beans, sugar, salt, and rice which can be stored in a dry, cool area for quite a long time. Can goods are another good way to stock up. Canned peaches, soups and other items can be bought and rotated out so they won’t reach their expiration date.

Hopefully, famine isn’t a disaster you ever experience living in Mexico, although it is an unfortunate possibility. Food shortages have happened before and will happen again. What better reason to take some time to prepare for it.  

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