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Drug cartels to Mexican businesses: pay up

Criminals are carrying out widespread extortion rackets, insisting business pay up or face brutal repercussions.

A man talks to a federal policeman during an operation at a night club in downtown Ciudad Juarez, March 7, 2009. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Employees at the meat wholesaler in this unwieldy border city were stacking a new delivery of frozen cuts when the bullets came flying through the window.

As the rattle of automatic rifle fire kept up for several minutes, they hid behind piles of pork chops and beef steaks praying for their lives.

By a miracle, no one caught a bullet. But the message was clear: pay the protection money or face the consequences.

“I know I am lucky to have a job but this makes me terrified to go to work,” said an employee, who asked his name not be used for fear of reprisals. “What is going to happen next? Are they going to firebomb the place?”

Attacks like this Nov. 20 hit have become increasingly common in this industrial sprawl south of El Paso as gangs carry out widespread extortion rackets amid a break down in law and order.

The protection schemes — which target both large and small firms as well as individual professionals — have hammered many businesses already suffering from Mexico’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

They were cited as a key reason that the city’s chamber of commerce and other business groups called on United Nations troops to enter the city earlier this month — a request that has to yet to be formally answered.

While Juarez has long been a key trafficking point for drugs heading to the United States, residents said they had only seen protection rackets in movies about Al Capone and other American mobsters.

However, the extortion of businesses began in the middle of 2008 — just as drug-related violence hit record levels and the military was called into the city.

“The criminals first started charging protection at used car lots and strip clubs — which have always had a certain link to organized crime. Then it just started growing to affect many other businesses such as pharmacies, doctors and funeral parlors,” said Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferris. “Now it has become a major concern for us.”

Mexican officials say that the drug trafficking gangs are behind much of the extortion, using it to make up for business lost to the government crackdown and incessant turf wars.

However, many other criminals have taken advantage of the chaos and fear unleashed by the drug war to make a quick profit from the racket, Reyes said.