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Central American gangs elevating fears in southern Mexico

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TAPACHULA, Mexico — With threatening telephone calls, burned minibuses and no less than three drivers shot to dying, road gangs extra carefully related to Central America are imposing their model of terror-based extortion on public transportation drivers in southern Mexico.

Organized crime teams together with the rival Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs have lengthy maintained a presence alongside the border between Mexico and Guatemala, however Mexican authorities say their numbers have elevated over the previous 12 months as El Salvador cracks down on gang members and their prison enterprises.

Drivers of the passenger vans and taxis folks depend upon for transportation in largely rural Chiapas say they stay in worry for his or her livelihood, or their lives. They’ve raised the alarm, holding short-term work stoppages to get authorities’ consideration. The proprietor of 1 transport firm in Tapachula has began shifting with bodyguards.

Some admit to paying the extortion, having seen what occurs to those that didn’t.

“If we don’t do something we’re going to be a little bit (El) Salvador,” stated a frontrunner of drivers within the city of Huixtla, the place a driver was shot by two males on a bike final February. The person requested anonymity, fearing gang reprisals.

Drivers in Huixtla confirmed The Related Press vouchers courting again a 12 months, documenting the funds.

Typically, it begins with somebody climbing aboard the bus and handing a telephone to the driving force, typically whereas pointing a gun on the driver’s head. The drivers are instructed to provide the telephone to the proprietor of the bus, van or taxi, establishing a direct line of communication.

Callers present the homeowners that they know who they’re, the place they stay, their routines and their livelihoods, in keeping with recordings reviewed by the AP. Talking with distinctive Central American accents, Salvadoran slang and vulgarity, they ask for $50 initially after which $50 monthly for every van or taxi, stated a consultant of drivers in Tapachula, who additionally requested anonymity out of worry.

The newest assault got here Monday, when an unidentified man fired into the native bus terminal in Cacahoatan. Nobody was injured, however bullets struck a parked van and led drivers to droop service. The shooter fled with one other man on a bike. Earlier this month, a van was set on hearth in the identical municipality.

Native authorities fashioned an anti-gang activity drive and posted police at transport hubs, and final month Mexico’s navy deployed an extra 350 troopers to communities alongside the Guatemalan border.

“The intent is to help the civilian inhabitants to lower the homicides tied to organized crime and the extent of violence that has been on the rise in latest days,” stated Ángel Banda Lozoya, commander of the native military regiment.

However the drivers stay uncovered as they make frequent stops on lengthy rural routes, and navy would possibly can’t simply quash a menace that arrives unseen, via menacing calls and messages.

José Mateo Martínez, Chiapas state prosecutor for migrant affairs, says El Salvador’s crackdown on organized crime is behind the rise in prison exercise in Mexico. “Individuals are coming to cover from that, however there are additionally gang leaders who come to create a prison group right here,” he stated.

In March 2022, El Salvador suspended some constitutional rights in response to an explosion of violence. The state of exception has continued since then, regardless of vast criticism by human rights organizations, with greater than 60,000 folks arrested on suspicion of gang ties.

Enforcement has been much less forceful amongst El Salvador’s neighbors: From 2018 via November 2022, Mexico arrested and deported 97 Salvadorans allegedly tied to gangs, principally within the final two years, in keeping with the Chiapas state prosecutor’s workplace. Neighboring Guatemala deported 90 alleged Salvadoran gang members final 12 months, Nationwide Civilian Police spokesman Edwin Monroy stated.

The gangs are transnational by nature, with tens of 1000’s of members in the US in addition to Central America and Mexico. El Salvador’s dominant road gangs fashioned in Los Angeles amongst communities of immigrants who had fled armed conflicts within the 1980s. Ultimately deported, they discovered fertile floor for extra violence, committing crimes in a single nation after which hiding out in one other, mixing in with the each day circulation of migrants throughout borders.

These gangs have lengthy operated alongside Mexico’s borders, typically offering road muscle for Mexico’s highly effective drug cartels or operating their very own prison enterprises, taking advantage of the illicit visitors of medication, weapons and migrants. And a few Mexican cartels extort companies in different components of the nation.

However one other Tapachula transportation chief, who requested anonymity as a result of he feared reprisals insisted that these extortionists are Central American gangsters, not Mexican cartel members.

Extorting native transportation has been a key line of their income in El Salvador. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele stated in August that extortion of that sector had fallen dramatically. His transportation minister estimated bus corporations had stopped paying some $50 million to gangs.

Different authorities have introduced some successes: In August, Mexican police took down a gang cell that offered medication and robbed purchasers at a bar in Tapachula. One of many 5 folks captured had a pending arrest order from El Salvador and was deported.

In November, Mexican authorities arrested and deported to El Salvador a purported chief of the Barrio 18 gang, suspected within the killings of six folks in San Salvador in 2020. Authorities in El Salvador stated he had fled to Mexico along with his household and different gang members to keep away from seize underneath El Salvador’s particular emergency powers.

And on Jan. 3, Guatemala captured and deported a Salvadoran gang member who had a number of arrest warrants on fees starting from aggravated homicide to terrorism.

However individuals who depend upon transit in southern Mexico stay dissatisfied. There’s a police car parked each day on the native station in Tapachula the place vans arrive and depart continuously, however their drivers stay uncovered.

Two of the killings occurred northwest of Tapachula close to the Pacific coast. In September, a person received out of a van driving the route between Tonala and Arriaga and shot the feminine driver. In late October, a driver was shot in Mapastepec by two males on a bike, not removed from the native terminal.

AP journalists Moises Castillo in Tapachula, Marcos Alemán in San Salvador, El Salvador and Sonia Pérez D. in Guatemala Metropolis contributed to this report.



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