Pedro Pardo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Teachers in Acapulco marched on Sept. 14 against an extortion attempt that has led scores of schools to close.
BY ELISABETH MALKIN
The New York Times
The message is delivered by a phone call to the office of one school, a sheaf of photocopied papers dropped off at another, a banner hung outside a third.
The demand is the same: teachers have until Oct. 1 to start handing over half of their pay. If they do not, they risk their lives.
Extortion is a booming industry in Mexico, with reported cases having almost tripled since 2004. To some analysts, it is an unintended consequence of the government’s strategy in the drug war: as the large cartels splinter, armies of street-level thugs schooled in threats and violence have brought their skills to new enterprises.
But the threat to teachers here in this tarnished tourist resort has taken the practice to a new level. Since the anonymous threats began last month, when students returned to classes after summer break, hundreds of schools have shut down.
“This isn’t about money, this is about life or death,” Alejandro Estrada, an elementary school teacher, said as he marched in protest with thousands of other teachers down Acapulco’s seafront boulevard last week. “If you don’t pay, you die.”
The word here, in the tough neighborhoods that tumble down the far side of the mountains lining the once-splendid bay, is that everybody is paying protection money: doctors, taxi drivers, local stores.
“They come every week, and you just pay because you never know,” whispered a flower seller in a market in Emiliano Zapata, a section of town where shuttered stores and padlocked schools testify to the fear.
“Everybody thinks he’s a hit man these days,” she added, refusing to give her name for fear that the people who collect less than $20 a week from her might find out that she had talked.
But unlike other groups, which appear to be suffering in silence, the teachers belong to a powerful union that can easily summon large numbers to protest. And over the past month, the strikes have spread to schools that have not received any threats, which shut in solidarity or in fear.
“We are all scared,” said a high school drawing teacher who would give her name only as Noemi. “We are targets because we have a salary that is a bit more stable than the rest.”
Nationwide, the surge in extortion was wrenched into painful focus last month after men suspected of working for the Zetas drug cartel set fire to a casino in the northern city of Monterrey, killing 52 people inside. State officials said the owners had balked when the Zetas raised the protection fee. While powerful criminal organizations like the Zetas have long made extortion their calling card, it has since taken on a life of its own.
For much of the five years since President Felipe Calderón began his crackdown against drug cartels, the government’s strategy has been to focus resources on their leaders and fracture the large organizations into smaller groups. But when violent gangs are cut loose from bosses who know how to move drugs to markets in the United States or are pushed out of traditional drug-running routes, they look for new lines of work, experts say. Extortion is among the least risky.
“Three or four armed men can call themselves Zetas and dedicate themselves to extortion,” Guillermo Zepeda, a security expert at Iteso, the Jesuit University in Guadalajara, said. In parts of Jalisco, his home state, he said, shopkeepers have closed their stores rather than pay protection money and instead live off money sent from relatives in the United States.
But extortion has now spread to many parts of Mexico that had been relatively distant from the drug wars, according to a study by Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst at Lantia Consultores, a Mexico City consulting firm.
“Extortion is the best business after international drug trafficking,” Mr. Guerrero said in an interview. “If you are sufficiently violent you can generate regular income.”
The business “always resorts to intimidation,” he wrote in the study, published this month in the magazine Nexos, “and as a result, habitually exerts more violence than drug trafficking.”
Moreover, unlike most cartel-on-cartel crime, the violence extends to ordinary citizens. That entanglement with innocent civilians can quickly whip up community anger and is the reason some drug gangs, notably the powerful Sinaloa cartel, eschew the practice as bad for business.
The popular revulsion over extortion has become so powerful that the New People gang, a rival battling the Zetas, took pains during a recent display of grisly hubris to distance itself from the practice. The gang dumped 35 bodies, believed to be Zetas, on a main road near the port city of Veracruz on Tuesday with a sign saying, “People of Veracruz, don’t let yourselves be extorted. Don’t pay any more ‘quotas.’ ”
The official count showing a tripling of reported cases since 2004 represents only a fraction of the problem. México Evalúa, a group that compiles crime statistics, estimates that at least 80 percent of extortion cases go unreported, and notes that some states do not even bother to track them.
The Pacific port of Acapulco, now one of the country’s most dangerous cities, faces a dual threat: while warring cartels and smaller gangs continue to exact endless cycles of revenge, neighborhood thugs are terrorizing ordinary people.
Killings related to organized crime have multiplied almost eightfold here in the past two years, jumping sharply a year ago after the federal police arrested Édgar Valdez Villarreal, the American-born cartel boss known as “La Barbie” who had made Acapulco his base. By the first months of this year such killings had reached an average of 78 a month, by Mr. Guerrero’s count. “The violence is very difficult to stop once it crosses a threshold,” he added.
State officials have tried to play down the school closings, which are concentrated in public schools in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. But after an estimated 7,000 teachers protested on Wednesday, the Guerrero State governor, Ángel Aguirre, met with teachers on Thursday, promising a host of new security measures, including increased police patrols and the installation of panic buttons, telephones and video cameras in every school.
The teachers will decide Tuesday whether the government’s pledges are sufficient for them to feel safe returning to class.
Some analysts question whether the threats could even be carried out. Most criminal groups would avoid attacking a group as politically powerful as teachers.
“Extorting teachers is risky; it generates a great deal of social disgust,” said Raúl Benitez, a security specialist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “It’s just a stupidity.”
But among the teachers, everybody appears to have heard of a kidnapping, a car theft or a violent mugging, and they believe the threats.
On the first day of school at La Patria es Primero Elementary School (which translates roughly as “Country First”) in the Zapata neighborhood, three men sauntered in pretending to be parents and then drew guns on the teachers, making off with money, school documents and a laptop belonging to a fifth-grade teacher who would give only his first name, Ricardo.
The school’s payroll officer received a message demanding that she hand over information about teachers’ salaries and has left the city, Ricardo said. “It could just be low-level kids taking advantage,” he said, “but they are spreading a psychosis among the population.”