TAPACHULA – With threatening phone calls, burned minibuses and at least three drivers shot to death, street gangs more closely associated with Central America are imposing their brand of terror-based extortion on public transportation drivers in southern Mexico.
Organized crime groups including the rival Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs have long maintained a presence along the border between Mexico and Guatemala, but Mexican authorities say their numbers have increased over the past year as El Salvador cracks down on gang members and their criminal enterprises.
Drivers of the passenger vans and taxis people depend on for transportation in largely rural Chiapas say they live in fear for their livelihood, or their lives. They have raised the alarm, holding temporary work stoppages to get authorities’ 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.
Local authorities formed an anti-gang task force and posted police at transport hubs, and last month Mexico's military deployed an additional 350 soldiers to communities along the Guatemalan border.
“The intent is to support the civilian population to decrease the homicides tied to organized crime and the level of violence that has been on the rise in recent days,” said Ángel Banda Lozoya, commander of the local army regiment.
But the drivers remain exposed as they make frequent stops on long rural routes, and military might can't easily quash a threat that arrives unseen, through menacing calls and messages.
José Mateo Martínez, Chiapas state prosecutor for migrant affairs, says El Salvador's crackdown on organized crime is behind the increase in criminal activity in Mexico. “People are coming to hide from that, but there are also gang leaders who come to create a criminal group here,” he said.
In March 2022, El Salvador suspended some constitutional rights in reaction to an explosion of violence. The state of exception has continued since then, despite wide criticism by human rights organizations, with more than 60,000 people arrested on suspicion of gang ties.
Enforcement has been less forceful among El Salvador's neighbors: From 2018 through November 2022, Mexico arrested and deported 97 Salvadorans allegedly tied to gangs, mostly in the last two years, according to the Chiapas state prosecutor’s office. Neighboring Guatemala deported 90 alleged Salvadoran gang members last year, National Civilian Police spokesman Edwin Monroy said.
The gangs are transnational by nature, with tens of thousands of members in the United States as well as Central America and Mexico. El Salvador's dominant street gangs formed in Los Angeles among communities of immigrants who had fled armed conflicts in the 1980s. Eventually deported, they found fertile ground for more violence, committing crimes in one country and then hiding out in another, blending in with the daily flow of migrants across borders.
These gangs have long operated along Mexico’s borders, sometimes providing street muscle for Mexico’s powerful drug cartels or running their own criminal enterprises, profiting from the illicit traffic of drugs, guns and migrants. And 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 American gangsters, not Mexican cartel members.
Extorting local transportation has been a key line of their revenue in El Salvador. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele said in August that extortion of that sector had fallen dramatically. His transportation minister estimated bus companies had stopped paying some $50 million to gangs.
Other authorities have announced some successes: In August, Mexican police took down a gang cell that sold drugs and robbed clients at a bar in Tapachula. One of the five people captured had a pending arrest order from El Salvador and was deported.
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.
AP journalists Moises Castillo in Tapachula, Marcos Alemán in San Salvador, El Salvador and Sonia Pérez D. in Guatemala City contributed to this report.