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.
“Our intelligence shows that there are many small improvised groups of criminals often of young people behind these crimes,” he said.
He also says that former police, who were fired in efforts to clean up the force of corrupt elements, have also been found to be involved in the extortions.
Many targeted businesses report being forced to pay relatively small amounts of protection money ranging from $100 to $400 per month.
The demands are accompanied by brutal repercussions to non-payers. As well as businesses being sprayed with bullets many have been burned down. One such case includes a bordello, which was firebombed on Nov. 21 leaving a customer and sex worker scarred for life with third-degree burns.
Others have been kidnapped and murdered for non-payment, joining the more than 2,000 homicide victims in Juarez this year.
Drug-related violence has mushroomed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon took power in December 2006 and declared an all-out war on the cartels.
His crackdown has netted record numbers of extraditions and busts but has also led to increased bloodshed as rival cartels hit back against each other and the government.
Critics say the approach is pushing Mexico toward a major security crisis and the government needs to rethink its strategy.
“This war is mainly killing poor people. Most of the victims of the soldiers and cartels are people from the slums who have no opportunities,” said Jose Dominguez, of the National Front Against Repression. “The extortion and insecurity also hurts the struggling people most. Many of the rich of Juarez just flee to El Paso.”
However, officials at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency hail Calderon’s offensive as a landmark in Mexican drug policy that will bear fruit in the long term. Joseph Arabit, special agent in charge of the DEA’s El Paso division, said the protection rackets are a sign of desperation by drug cartels that have been hit so hard on both sides of the border.
“Under Calderon, there has been unprecedented cooperation with the United States. He has not wavered at all in face of the threats and violence,” Arabit said. “We will continue to support and encourage Mexico to apply consistent pressure to these drug cartels.”
Editor's note: A quotation has been removed from this story. It was published in error because of a misunderstanding with a source.