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'Invisible' crime of extortion takes a heavy toll on Tijuana, according to new study

Extortion in Tijuana is more rampant than originally thought and contributes to the city’s high rate of violent crime, according to a new study by researchers from UC San Diego and Mexico.

The report, which is due to be published on the UCSD Center for U.S-Mexican Studies’ website Monday, notes that less than 1% of all extortion cases are reported to the authorities. It goes on to say extortion often leads to more violent crimes and Tijuana authorities lack the political will to tackle the problem.

“The huge challenge about extortion and protection rackets in Mexico is that it is one of the most underreported crimes,” said Romain Le Coir, one of the study’s authors and head of security programs and violence reduction at Mexico Evalua. “Less than 1% of extortion cases are actually reported.”

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Matthew Bowler
Romain Le Cour, a researcher with the think tank Mexico Evalua, discusses his findings about the state of extortion in Tijuana at UC-San Diego on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

Le Coir and other researchers, including Cecilia Farfan Mendez who is the co-founder of the Mexico Violence Resource Project at UC San Diego, spent a year talking to Tijuana business owners about their experiences with extortion.

They found the most common extortion victims are small-to-medium-sized businesses in the eastern part of Tijuana. The perpetrators are mostly small criminal organizations that control a few blocks of territory, as opposed to large drug cartels.

Because extortionists operate in small areas, they learn a lot about their victims, the study said. Criminals will often visit the shop, gain access to the financial books and stalk the business owners and their families on social media. They’ll even go so far as to find out when and where the family takes vacations.

“They collect the information and create a kind of package that gives a very precise picture of your shop, what you are doing, how much you’re making and use it to decide how much you are going to pay,” Le Coir said.

Because extortion is so underreported, researchers described it as an “invisible crime.” But it quickly becomes visible when business owners refuse to pay. Extortion escalates to vandalism, assault, arson, and even murder, according to the researchers.

“It goes from a very invisible, silent crime to a very visible and high-impact crime in Tijuana,” Le Coir said.

Research suggests Tijuana could lower the violent crime rate by addressing extortion. To that end, Le Coir and Farfan have met with officials in Tijuana to try to come up with policy solutions.

However, they say Mexican authorities lack the political will to address the issue because these crimes are underreported.

“The authorities will tell you, ‘My constituents ask me to do something about homicide because the numbers and figures for homicide are very visible, why should I invest time, energy, money, my career, my reputation in tackling something that doesn’t appear on the records,’” Le Coir said.

A spokesman for Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero said in an email that the mayor is aware of the upcoming report and its criticisms of Tijuana leaders.

Caballero has urged victims of extortion to report crimes to the local authorities, who are ready to investigate and prosecute criminals, the spokesman added.

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