"Sol Prendido" for Borderland Beat
With threatening phone calls, burned passenger vans and at least three drivers shot to death, street gangs most closely associated with Central America are imposing their style of terror-based extortion on public transport drivers in southern Mexico.
Organized crime organizations, including rival gangs Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, have long been present in the Mexico-Guatemala border zone, but Mexican authorities say their numbers have increased over the past year as El Salvador has cracked down on gang members and their criminal activities.
Drivers of passenger vans and cabs, on whom people depend for transportation in Chiapas, a largely rural state, say they live in fear for their livelihoods or their lives. They have reacted in alarm, staging temporary work stoppages to get the attention of the authorities. The owner of a transport company in Tapachula has begun to move around accompanied by bodyguards.
Some admit that they have made payments to the extortionists, after seeing what has happened to those who have not.
"If we don't do anything we are going to be a small Salvador," said a drivers' leader in the town of Huixtla, where a driver was shot by two men on a motorcycle last February. The man requested anonymity for fear of gang reprisals.
Several drivers in Huixtla showed vouchers to The Associated Press documenting the payments, dated up to a year ago.
In general, the extortion begins with someone getting into the vehicle and handing a cell phone to the driver, sometimes while pointing a gun to the driver's head. Drivers are instructed to hand the phone to the owner of the vehicle, van or cab, establishing a direct line of communication.
Then the threats begin.
Callers demonstrate to the owners that they already know who they are, where they live, their routines and their livelihoods, according to recordings reviewed by the AP. With distinctly Central American accents, Salvadoran slang and vulgarities, they initially ask for $50 and then $50 a month for each van or cab, explained a representative of the drivers in Tapachula, who also requested anonymity out of fear.
The most recent attack occurred on Monday, when an unidentified man fired shots at the local transport terminal in Cacahoatán. No one was injured, but the bullets hit a parked van, causing drivers to suspend their service. The attacker fled with another man on a motorcycle. Days earlier, a van was set on fire in the same municipality.
Local authorities formed a special anti-gang task force and stationed police at public transport stations. The Mexican army last month deployed 350 additional soldiers in communities along the border with Guatemala.
"The intention is to support the civilian population's call to decrease homicides linked to organized crime and the level of violence that has been on the rise in recent days," said Angel Banda Lozoya, commander of the local army regiment.
But drivers still feel exposed, as they make frequent stops on long rural routes, so the army cannot easily eliminate a threat that arrives unseen through threatening calls and messages.
Chiapas' state prosecutor for migration issues, Jose Mateo Martinez, says El Salvador's crackdown on organized crime explains the increased activity of these gangs in Mexico. "People come to hide from this, but leaders also come to establish themselves, to create a criminal group here," he explained.
In March 2022, El Salvador suspended some constitutional rights in response to an outbreak of violence. The state of emergency has continued ever since, despite widespread criticism from human rights organizations, with more than 60,000 people detained on suspicion of gang links.
Enforcement has been less forceful among El Salvador's neighbors: from 2018 through November 2022, Mexico arrested and deported 97 Salvadorans allegedly linked to gangs, most in the last two years, according to the Mexican state prosecutor's office in Chiapas. Neighboring Guatemala deported 90 alleged Salvadoran gang members last year, reported National Civil Police spokesman Edwin Monroy.
Gangs are transnational in nature, with tens of thousands of members in the United States, Central America and Mexico. El Salvador's dominant street gangs formed in Los Angeles among immigrant communities that had fled armed conflict in the 1980s.
After being deported, they found fertile ground for more violence, committed crimes in one country and then hid in another, and blended into the daily flow of migrants across borders.
These gangs have long operated along Mexico's borders, sometimes providing street-level support to Mexico's powerful drug cartels, or running their own criminal organizations in the trafficking of drugs, arms and migrants.
Some Mexican cartels extort businesses in other parts of the country, but another Tapachula transport leader, who requested anonymity because he feared reprisals, insisted that these extortionists are Central Americans, not members of Mexican cartels.
Extorting public transport has been a key line of their income in El Salvador. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele said in August that extortion in that sector had fallen dramatically. His transport minister estimated that companies had stopped paying some $50 million to the gangs.
Other authorities have announced some successes: in August, Mexican police dismantled a gang cell that sold drugs and robbed bar patrons in Tapachula. One of the five people captured had an outstanding arrest warrant in El Salvador and was deported.
In November, Mexican authorities arrested and deported to El Salvador an alleged Barrio 18 gang leader suspected of murdering six people in San Salvador in 2020. Salvadoran authorities said he had fled to Mexico with his family and other gang members to avoid capture under El Salvador's special emergency powers.
On January 3, Guatemala captured and deported a Salvadoran gang member who had multiple warrants for his arrest on charges ranging from aggravated homicide to terrorism.
But people who depend on transportation in southern Mexico remain dissatisfied. There is a police vehicle parked daily at the public transport station in Tapachula where vans constantly arrive and depart, but their drivers continue to feel vulnerable.
Two of the driver murders occurred northwest of Tapachula, near the Pacific coast. In September, a man got out of a van on the route between Tonalá and Arriaga and shot the driver. At the end of October, a driver was shot in Mapastepec by two men on a motorcycle, not far from the local terminal
Associated Press writers Moises Castillo in Tapachula, Chiapas; Marcos Aleman in San Salvador; and Sonia Perez D. in Guatemala City contributed to this report.