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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Purported Mexican cartel members threaten El Paso businesses

The Associated Press

U.S. businesses are reporting threats by extortionists claiming to be members of drug cartels, a sign that criminal tactics common in Mexico are showing up north of the border.

This week alone, at least two El Paso businesses reported to police calls they had received from a man identifying himself as a Zetas commander working for the Gulf cartel.

One man, in a "bullying voice," called an El Paso businessman and demanded "$50,000 immediately, or the next time we'll see you, it will be at the funeral of a loved one," the businessman said.

The businessman spoke on condition of anonymity, citing concerns for his safety and that of his family. The family said it reported the incident to police.

Police said the caller may have been someone posing as a cartel member, hoping to use the fearsome reputation of the drug-trafficking groups operating across the border in Ciudad Juárez to extract money from businesses in El Paso.

El Paso police spokesman Javier Sambrano said he believes the incident is a "scam, with people trying to take advantage of the situation here in the community, specifically in Ciudad Juárez."

Sambrano said an investigator had been assigned to the case, and he acknowledged that other businesses had been threatened in the past few days, but he couldn't say how many.

Such extortion calls have become common in Mexico, where drug cartels have morphed into full-scale mafias, running extortion and protection rings as they try.

 But such calls are considered rare on the U.S. side of the border.

El Paso prides itself as being one of the safest U.S. cities for its size.

But as Mexicans flee the growing insecurity and move to U.S. border cities, American business owners have said they fear that the cartels, with members living on both sides of the border, will also prey on them and demand "protection" fees.

Such demands have wrecked hundreds of businesses across Mexico, particularly in cities such as Ciudad Juárez, where the cartels are most active.

Juárez is considered the most dangerous city in the Americas. So far this year, more than 1,800 people have been killed in criminal violence, including more than 300 in September alone.

But the destruction in Juárez is measured in more ways than body counts.

In downtown Juárez, burned-out businesses have become a common sight, many of them victims of organized crime carrying through on threats to destroy shops of owners who refused to pay protection fees, authorities say.

Last month, an owner of a funeral home was killed, and a day later, his business was burned. Mexican authorities said they believe the owner refused to pay protection fees.

A survey of members of the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico showed that 75 percent of respondents felt that growing insecurity in the country had had an impact on their businesses. Fifty-seven percent said their companies planned to increase their security budget within the next two years, said Marina Tavares, spokeswoman for the chamber in Mexico City.

For a family-owned business in east El Paso, such stories of insecurity and extortion were once nothing but tales read in newspapers. But then came the threatening call last week.

"There are only so many companies they can extort on the Mexican side," said one of the business owners. "Sooner, or later, they will start operating here. After all, we're so close, right along the border."

The family said it called police, but the officer who responded to the call told them there was little the police can do other than monitor the situation and have detectives periodically check on them.

For now, the family is adjusting their routines. One of the business owners said he won't work late anymore.

In the end, the mother of the business owner said, the calls may be part of a hoax, or they may be made by opportunists trying to take advantage of a people on both sides of the border who are already on edge.

Either way, the mother said: "We're taking this very seriously. We're not getting much rest. And whenever I think about it, I shake like a leaf."

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