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 (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 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.”
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 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 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.