September 13, 2011
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Extortion is a major problem in Mexico. It’s also big business. In some cases extortion is a direct spin-off of drug trafficking, and in other cases it’s an independent enterprise. But usually there’s some nexus between the two. Crime promotes crime. Yesterday Mexican authorities proved they intend to start getting tough with extortion.
Extortion here is unlike that in wealthier societies. In the United States an extortion victim typically is a person or business with obvious resources. Here the crime is ubiquitous. Anybody can be extorted anytime, no matter how rich or poor their visible circumstances might suggest. The Casino Royale in Monterrey was the subject of extortion attempts. When the owners failed to pay up after two “requests,” hit men from the Los Zetas drug cartel arrived in the middle of the afternoon, casually got out of their cars, walked in the main entrance and set it afire. Fifty-two customers and employees were trapped inside and burned to death or died from smoke inhalation. The Zetas (“Zs”) don’t commonly ask for anything a third time.
But quite often Mexican extortion victims are the little guys. The extortionist stops by for a friendly chat and demands the payment of a periodic (weekly or monthly) derecho de piso, loosely translated as “floor charge.” The business owner must faithfully pay or risk the consequences. It’s a regular event in Mexico. There are tens of thousands of tienditas here – little stores where prepared food, groceries and everything else under the sun are sold. Most of the people who run them are hard-working and honest, and often just getting by themselves. So the derecho de piso hits them particularly hard.
Yesterday in Ciudad Juárez – the most dangerous city in the world according to some experts – two young men, 23 and 25, were sentenced to life in prison for extortion. The victim was the female owner of such a tiendita. She was handing over 1,000 pesos a week to the extortionists – about $80 USD, no doubt a lot of money to her. She had the courage to testify against them. It was the first time a life sentence had been given to extortionists in Mexico.
In a report yesterday (September 12), CNN Mexico said that federal authorities claim the drug cartels use extortion to finance their daily business operations. In December 2010, Mexico authorized life imprisonment for kidnapping, multiple murders, extortion and the murder of a journalist. There is no death penalty in Mexico, although some have called for its reinstatement in cases of extreme narco violence.
© Edward V. Byrne 2011. This article may be briefly quoted but not reproduced in full without express permission of the author.