MEXICO CITY (AP) — Business and church leaders say they are being hit by a wave of extortion demands by criminal gangs in Mexico’s north-central state of Guanajuato.
Guanajuato was recently considered a success story in Mexico for attracting high-tech manufacturing investment. Five auto manufacturers have set up plants in the state.
But following a government crackdown on pipeline fuel thefts early this year, gangs have targeted local businesses in the city of Celaya for shakedowns.
Arturo Gonzalez Palomino, the head of the state’s association of auto dealerships, said Tuesday that at least two car lots in Celaya have been shot up by criminals demanding protection payments.
He said the most recent attack occurred at a John Deere equipment dealership late last week.
“They spayed the dealership with gunfire, the way they have before,” Gonzalez Palomino said.
A previous attack the week before shot out the windows at a Ford dealership in Celaya.
He said other dealerships in the city have received extortion demands by telephone calls or with notes, which contain explicit or implicit threats of violence.
And the local bishop said even Roman Catholic priests have been targeted for extortion.
Bishop Benjamín Castillo Plascencia said in a statement “we are united in prayer with all those who suffer, and with all those who seek a better Celaya, a Celaya at peace.”
Earlier, the bishop told local media that priests in his diocese had received about 20 phone calls demanding protection payments.
In August, the gangs in Celaya were so bold that when local tortilla shop owners protested the extortion problem at city hall, gunmen immediately attacked one of their businesses, killing three employees.
The Celaya Tortilla Industry association said in a statement that “many colleagues have opted to close” in the face of constant demands for protection money.
The gangs used to make money drilling illegal taps in government pipelines to steal diesel and gasoline which they later sold.
But President Andrés Manuel López Obrador cracked down on the thefts in January, sending troops to guard pipelines and shutting down some ducts to allow fuel to be transported by tanker trucks.
Since then, the Santa Rosa de Lima gang appears to have turned to extortion.