THPDACHULA, Mexico (HPD) — With threatening phone calls, passenger vans burned and at least three drivers shot to death, the street gangs most closely associated with Central America are imposing their brand of terror-based extortion on public transportation drivers. in southern Mexico.
Organized crime organizations, including rival gangs the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, have long been present in the Mexico-Guatemala border area, 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.
The drivers of passenger vans and taxis, on whom people depend for transportation in Chiapas, a largely rural state, say they live in fear for their livelihoods or for their lives. They have reacted with alarm, carrying out temporary work stoppages to attract the attention of the authorities. The owner of a transport company in Tapachula has begun to move accompanied by bodyguards.
Some admit that they have made payments to extortionists, after seeing what happened to those who had not.
“If we don’t do anything, we’re going to be a small Salvador,” said a leader of drivers 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 reprisals from the gangs.
Several drivers in Huixtla showed The Associated Press receipts documenting the payments, dated up to a year ago.
In general, the extortion begins with someone getting into the vehicle and handing the driver a cell phone, sometimes while pointing a gun to the driver’s head. Drivers are instructed to hand over the phone to the owner of the vehicle, van or taxi, thereby establishing a direct line of communication.
Then the threats begin.
The callers show the owners that they already know who they are, where they live, their routines and their livelihoods, according to recordings reviewed by the HPD. With distinctly Central American accents, Salvadoran slang and vulgarities, they initially ask $50 and then $50 a month for each van or taxi, said 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 transportation terminal in Cacahoatán. No one was hurt, but the bullets struck a parked van, causing the drivers to suspend their service. The attacker fled with another man on a motorcycle. Days ago, a van was set on fire in the same municipality.
Local authorities formed a special anti-gang force and posted police officers at public transport stations. The Mexican military last month deployed an additional 350 soldiers to communities along the border with Guatemala.
“The intention is to support the call of the civilian population to reduce homicides linked to organized crime and the level of violence that has been increasing in recent days,” said Ángel Banda Lozoya, commander of the local army regiment.
But drivers still feel exposed, making frequent stops on long rural routes, so the military cannot easily eliminate a threat that arrives unseen through threatening calls and messages.
The Chiapas state prosecutor for immigration matters, José Mateo Martínez, says that the repression undertaken by El Salvador against organized crime explains the increase in the activity of these gangs in Mexico. “People come hiding from that, 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 ties.
Enforcement of the law has been less forceful among El Salvador’s neighbors: From 2018 to November 2022, Mexico arrested and deported 97 Salvadorans suspected of gang ties, the majority in the past two years, according to the Mexican state prosecutor’s office in Chiapas. Neighboring Guatemala deported 90 suspected Salvadoran gang members last year, National Civil Police spokesman Edwin Monroy said.
Gangs are transnational by 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 who had fled armed conflict in the 1980s.
After being deported, they found fertile ground for more violence, committing crimes in one country and then hiding in another, mingling with the daily flow of migrants across borders.
These gangs have long operated along Mexico’s borders, sometimes providing street support to Mexico’s powerful drug cartels, or running their own criminal organizations smuggling drugs, weapons, and migrants.
Some Mexican cartels extort businesses in other parts of the country, but another Tapachula transportation leader, who requested anonymity because he feared reprisals, insisted that these extortionists are Central Americans, not members of Mexican cartels.
Extorting public transportation has been a key line of their income in El Salvador. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele said in August that extortion from that sector had fallen drastically. His transportation minister estimated that the companies had stopped paying some $50 million to the gangs.
Other authorities have reported some successes: In August, Mexican police dismantled a gang cell that sold drugs and robbed patrons of a bar 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 leader of the Barrio 18 gang, suspected of killing six people in San Salvador in 2020. Salvadoran authorities said he had fled to Mexico with his family and others. 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 the people who depend on transportation in southern Mexico remain unsatisfied. There is a police vehicle parked daily at the public transport station in Tapachula where vans arrive and depart constantly, but its drivers continue to feel vulnerable.
Two of the driver slayings occurred northwest of Tapachula, near the Pacific coast. In September, a man got out of a truck on the route between Tonalá and Arriaga and shot the driver. In late October, a driver was shot in Mapastepec by two men on a motorcycle, not far from the local terminal.
Associated Press journalists Moisés Castillo in Tapachula, Chiapas; Marcos Alemán in San Salvador; and Sonia Pérez D. in Guatemala City contributed to this report.