West News Wire: Street gangs more commonly identified with Central America are imposing their brand of terror-based extortion on public transportation drivers in southern Mexico with threatening phone calls, burning minibuses, and at least three drivers shot to death.
Organized crime organizations, such as the rival Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs, have long maintained a presence along the border between Mexico and Guatemala, but according to Mexican authorities, their numbers have grown in recent months as El Salvador has intensified its crackdown on gang members and their criminal activities.
Drivers of the taxis and passenger vans that Chiapas’ commuters rely on to go around say they constantly worry about losing their jobs or perhaps their lives. They’ve alerted authorities by staging brief work stoppages in order to demand their attention. The owner of one transport company in Tapachula has started moving with bodyguards.
Some admit to paying the extortion, having seen what happens to those who didn’t.
“If we don’t do anything we’re going to be a little (El) 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, fearing gang reprisals.
Drivers in Huixtla showed The Associated Press vouchers dating back a year, documenting the payments.
Generally, it starts with someone climbing aboard the bus and handing a phone to the driver, sometimes while pointing a gun at the driver’s head. The drivers are told to give the phone to the owner of the bus, van or taxi, establishing a direct line of communication.
Then the threats begin.
Callers show the owners that they know who they are, where they live, their routines and their livelihoods, according to recordings reviewed by the AP. Speaking with distinctive Central American accents, Salvadoran slang and vulgarity, they ask for $50 initially and then $50 per month for each van or taxi, said a representative of drivers in Tapachula, who also requested anonymity out of fear.
The latest attack came Monday, when an unidentified man fired into the local bus terminal in Cacahoatan. No one was injured, but bullets struck a parked van and led drivers to suspend service. The shooter fled with another man on a motorcycle. Earlier this month, a van was set on fire in the same municipality.
In November, Mexican authorities arrested and deported to El Salvador a purported leader of the Barrio 18 gang, suspected in the killings of six people in San Salvador in 2020. Authorities in El Salvador said he had fled to Mexico with his family and other gang members to avoid capture under El Salvador’s special emergency powers.
And on Jan. 3, Guatemala captured and deported a Salvadoran gang member who had multiple arrest warrants on charges ranging from aggravated murder to terrorism.
But people who depend on transit in southern Mexico remain dissatisfied. There’s a police vehicle parked daily at the local station in Tapachula where vans arrive and depart constantly, but their drivers remain exposed.
Two of the killings happened northwest of Tapachula near the Pacific coast. In September, a man got out of a van driving the route between Tonala and Arriaga and shot the female driver. In late October, a driver was shot in Mapastepec by two men on a motorcycle, not far from the local terminal.