How Mexico’s cartels infiltrated the tortilla business

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CUAUTLA, Mexico — The shots rang out just before 10 a.m. A motorcyclist roared past a modest building behind the old railway station here, firing three times. Minutes later, the gunman unloaded on a storefront a half-mile away, wounding a teenager.

The assailant was from the feared Acapulcos gang, the authorities later concluded — an offshoot of a heroin-trafficking cartel. But the targets that November morning weren’t rival drug dealers or police informants.

They were tortilla shops.

Small businesses stamping out warm tortillas have long been a fixture of Mexican neighborhoods. Now, thousands are being threatened by armed groups, part of a transformation in organized crime that’s rippling through Latin America. Cartels are playing a growing role in the region’s economies, from infiltrating seaports to extorting small businesses — and gaining increasing political power.

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Drug-trafficking rings have expanded so rapidly that nearly every Latin American mainland nation has become a major producer or transit corridor for cocaine, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. But criminal groups are also branching out into other illegal enterprises. In Mexico, they’re shaking down fishermen, chicken vendors, builders, trucking companies, gas stations and a host of other businesses, including producers of the country’s staple food — the corn tortilla.

An assailant throws a firebomb in a tortillería in the city of Zihuatanejo in 2022. Mexican gangs have set fire to tortilla shops that refuse to pay extortion. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

At least 15 percent of tortillerías — about 20,000 storefront businesses — are regularly extorted, according to the National Tortilla Council, a trade group. A decade ago, the council said, only a tiny percentage were threatened. Around the country, from rural villages to beach resort towns such as Zihuatanejo, tortilla shops that refuse to pay are set on fire or riddled with gunfire.

“We’re practically at the point where criminals set the price of tortillas,” said Homero López, head of the council.

Outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a longtime critic of the U.S.-backed “war on drugs,” has designed his security policy around social programs rather than spectacular gunfights with traffickers. Homicides declined 9 percent during the first four years of his term, according to the latest data. But business organizations, human rights groups and others say a quieter, more pernicious phenomenon is spreading.

Once focused on the U.S. drug market, Mexican criminal groups have turned their sights on their own country, seeking to control territory they can exploit financially.

They’re embedding themselves in local governments to maximize that control. That has made Mexico’s elections increasingly violent. Hundreds of local candidates in the June 2 vote have dropped out of the race because of threats. At least 34 people running for office in this election have been killed, according to the consulting firm Integralia.

The criminal groups “have become de facto rulers” in some communities, said Sandra Ley, coordinator of the security program at México Evalúa, a research organization.

Mexico’s cartels began to diversify into extortion, migrant smuggling and other illicit businesses more than a decade ago, as they splintered into smaller groups under pressure from security forces. Newer gangs needed fresh sources of income.

By now, they’ve penetrated entire industries.

About 70 percent of lumber production in Mexico is illicit, the Environment Ministry says — with a significant amount in the hands of organized crime groups. At least 30 percent of the fuel sold in Mexico is stolen or smuggled, estimates Onexpo, a national gas station group. One in every 5 cigarettes comes from the black market.

On Mexican farms, criminals “tax” everything from potatoes to the avocados bound for Americans’ guacamole. Extortion accounted for nearly one-quarter of the 6 percent price increase in agricultural goods last year, according to José Ignacio Martínez, an economist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

While solid data is scarce, revenue from the array of illicit activities could rival the estimated $12 billion Mexican cartels rake in every year from drug sales. In one area alone — stolen and contraband fuel — the government estimates it’s losing about $5 billion a year.

Gangs frequently demand extortion payments from chicken vendors in Mexican markets, and sometimes demand protection money from wholesalers. (Video: Fred Ramos for The Washington Post)

The expanding criminal grip on the economy is starting to have a spillover effect at the U.S. border. Detentions of Mexicans at the U.S. border — including asylum applicants — have tripled since 2019, reaching about 717,000 last year. People leave the country for many reasons, including better-paying jobs. But an increasing percentage of Mexican migrants say they are fleeing violence and extortion.

In a poll commissioned last fall by the State Department, and not previously made public, 39 percent of Mexicans surveyed said they’d be willing to migrate irregularly to the United States in the following months — a fourfold rise from early 2022.

On a recent morning, Antonio Vázquez nudged his pickup truck through the choking traffic south of the city of Cuernavaca, headed for a secret location. A fellow tortilla vendor was in trouble.

Vázquez, 55, a brooding man with silver-streaked hair, leads the tortilla association in Morelos, a small state south of Mexico City. Lately, he’d become a minor celebrity, making TV news by denouncing the threat to the state’s tortillerías. About 30 shops in his state closed last year because of extortion.

His wife has been urging him to lower his profile. But Vázquez, who’d trained as a lawyer, can’t contain his outrage.

“Somebody has to speak out,” he said.

He turned onto a quiet street of pastel-colored homes and pulled into a walled compound. Under a giant tree, he sat down with a man in his late 30s, heavyset and sweating. The man, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, had refused to pay extortion. A gang retaliated by setting fire to his house.

“I have to find another way to survive,” the younger man was saying.

There was only one option, he said — moving to the United States. Vázquez said he would try to help him open a tortilla shop there.

But, the man complained, “I can’t get a visa.” He said he might have to cross illegally.

Vázquez listened quietly, taking swigs of cold soda and swatting at the flies floating in the hot, still air.

All he could offer was a sympathetic ear.

More than two decades ago, Vázquez left his law firm to go into the family tortilla business, opening several shops in Cuernavaca. It seemed to be an ideal location. The city was a popular escape for well-heeled Mexico City residents, with its balmy weather, swimming pools, and riotous pink and orange bougainvillea spilling over stucco walls.

When the first gang turned up about three years ago, asking $10 a week to “protect the neighborhood,” tortilla shops paid up. The criminal group quickly wiped out petty theft.

Five months later, in a burst of violence, a new gang took over, and protection fees began to rise.

“They lasted a year,” Vázquez recalled. “They were killed too.”

Now, gangs in the Cuernavaca area are hitting up tortilla makers for as much as $900 a month.

Just the previous week, armed men in masks had barged into one of Vázquez’s shops and thrust a cellphone at him.

“Take it,” one said. “The boss is going to call you.”

Vázquez turned the phone over to the authorities. They asked him to convince his fellow tortilla vendors to provide all information possible: extortioners’ names, nicknames, their license plates, the model of their cars. Yet he was hesitant.

“Even I’m afraid.”

Competition for territory

Mexican analysts are still puzzling over what caused the new criminal economy to take off. But one of the seminal events occurred just two miles north of Vázquez’s downtown tortillería, in a leafy Cuernavaca neighborhood known as Lomas de la Selva.

On the night of Dec. 16, 2009, Mexican navy commandos stormed a luxury condo complex, and a firefight began. Four hours later, Arturo Beltrán Leyva lay dead in the doorway of a blood-spattered bathroom.

The Obama administration called it “a significant blow against drug cartels.” Beltrán Leyva, the “boss of bosses,” was the first of a string of drug lords who were slain or captured by Mexican security forces aided by U.S. agents.

But the cartels didn’t collapse. They splintered. Today, Mexico has two cartels with a nationwide presence (Sinaloa and Jalisco), but also hundreds of smaller groups. In the past four years, the security firm Lantia Consultores has identified at least 87 regional armed groups and 586 gangs.

Regional criminal groups in Mexico

Mexico City

Cuautla

SOUTH / SOUTHEAST

49 mafias

By reach

LOCAL

REGIONAL

NATIONAL

586 groups

87 mafias

2 main cartels

How crime penetrates

the tortilla industry

FARMING

DISTRIBUTION

Sinaloa is a major source of white corn used to make tortillas around Mexico. Cartels have penetrated the government-run water system in the state, putting their people in key jobs dealing with irrigation. Cartel allies pay little or nothing for water, while normal farmers have to pay extra.

Trucks carrying corn to tortillerias are robbed on Mexican highways. Organized crime groups make hundreds of millions of dollars stealing produce and manufactured goods from tractor-trailers and trains. Some trucks pay extortion to avoid being robbed.

PRODUCTION

DELIVERY

At least 15 percent of tortillerias in Mexico have to pay protection money, according to the National Tortilla Council. In some places, crime groups control the supply of corn and even gas tanks to tortilla shops.

In some cities, deliverymen employed by tortilla shops to supply taco stands and restaurants have been accused of also selling drugs. A number of motorcycle delivery employees have been killed.

Source: Lantia Consultores

Regional criminal groups in Mexico

Mexico City

Cuautla

SOUTH / SOUTHEAST

49 mafias

By reach

LOCAL

REGIONAL

NATIONAL

586 groups

87 mafias

2 main cartels

How crime penetrates

the tortilla industry

FARMING

DISTRIBUTION

Sinaloa is a major source of white corn used to make tortillas around Mexico. Cartels have penetrated the government-run water system in the state, putting their people in key jobs dealing with irrigation. Cartel allies pay little or nothing for water, while normal farmers have to pay extra.

Trucks carrying corn to tortillerias are robbed on Mexican highways. Organized crime groups make hundreds of millions of dollars stealing produce and manufactured goods from tractor-trailers and trains. Some trucks pay extortion to avoid being robbed.

PRODUCTION

DELIVERY

At least 15 percent of tortillerias in Mexico have to pay protection money, according to the National Tortilla Council. In some places, crime groups control the supply of corn and even gas tanks to tortilla shops.

In some cities, deliverymen employed by tortilla shops to supply taco stands and restaurants have been accused of also selling drugs. A number of motorcycle delivery employees have been killed.

Source: Lantia Consultores

By reach

Regional criminal groups in Mexico

NATIONAL

Tijuana

2 main cartels

Ciudad Juarez

REGIONAL

Chihuahua

87 mafias

Monterrey

Cancun

Guadalajara

Merida

LOCAL

Mexico City

SOUTH / SOUTHEAST

49 mafias

586 groups

Veracruz

Cuautla

Acapulco

Oaxaca

How crime penetrates the tortilla industry

FARMING

DISTRIBUTION

PRODUCTION

DELIVERY

At least 15 percent of tortillerias in Mexico have to pay protection money, according to the National Tortilla Council. In some places, crime groups control the supply of corn and even gas tanks to tortilla shops.

In some cities, deliverymen employed by tortilla shops to supply taco stands and restaurants have been accused of also selling drugs. A number of motorcycle delivery employees have been killed.

Sinaloa is a major source of white corn used to make tortillas around Mexico. Cartels have penetrated the government-run water system in the state, putting their people in key jobs dealing with irrigation. Cartel allies pay little or nothing for water, while normal farmers have to pay extra.

Trucks carrying corn to tortillerias are robbed on Mexican highways. Organized crime groups make hundreds of millions of dollars stealing produce and manufactured goods from tractor-trailers and trains. Some trucks pay extortion to avoid being robbed.

Source: Lantia Consultores

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By reach

Regional criminal groups in Mexico

NATIONAL

Tijuana

2 main cartels

Ciudad Juarez

REGIONAL

87 mafias

Chihuahua

Monterrey

LOCAL

586 groups

Cancun

Guadalajara

Merida

Mexico City

Veracruz

SOUTH / SOUTHEAST

49 mafias

Cuautla

Acapulco

Oaxaca

How crime penetrates the tortilla industry

FARMING

DISTRIBUTION

PRODUCTION

DELIVERY

At least 15 percent of tortillerias in Mexico have to pay protection money, according to the National Tortilla Council. In some places, crime groups control the supply of corn and even gas tanks to tortilla shops.

In some cities, deliverymen employed by tortilla shops to supply taco stands and restaurants have been accused of also selling drugs. A number of motorcycle delivery employees have been killed.

Trucks carrying corn to tortillerias are robbed on Mexican highways. Organized crime groups make hundreds of millions of dollars stealing produce and manufactured goods from tractor-trailers and trains. Some trucks pay extortion to avoid being robbed.

Sinaloa is a major source of white corn used to make tortillas around Mexico. Cartels have penetrated the government-run water system in the state, putting their people in key jobs dealing with irrigation. Cartel allies pay little or nothing for water, while normal farmers have to pay extra.

Source: Lantia Consultores

“Fragmentation means that there’s a lot more competition for territory,” said Eduardo Moncada, a political scientist at Barnard College who studies crime in Latin America. “And so these criminal groups are turning to extortion as one way to generate revenue, to be able to wage these wars.”

The trend is evident in other parts of Latin America, too. In Ecuador, reported cases of extortion rose almost 15-fold between 2021 and 2023, reaching 21,811, according to the Observatorio Ecuatoriano de Crimen Organizado. In Colombia, businesses ranging from rural coffee farms to multinational mining firms are forced to pay protection money. Gangs in Latin America have also expanded into migrant-smuggling and environmental crimes such as illegal logging and mining.

“These illicit activities are less profitable than drug trafficking, but they have become increasingly attractive because they generate relatively stable incomes at lower risk,” noted an International Crisis Group report issued last year.

The rise of the mini-cartels is evident in Cuautla, a sunbaked city of 150,000 people nestled amid sugar-cane fields 30 miles southeast of Cuernavaca. A downtown park features a towering statue of Emiliano Zapata, the insurgent who famously attacked the city during the Mexican Revolution.

These days, a different kind of battle is underway. Four crime groups vie for power, according to law enforcement officials. They’re the Mexico City-based Unión Tepito, and three smaller groups — including Los Acapulcos — that split off from big drug-trafficking cartels.

The groups shake down nearly everyone in the city: butcher shops, nail salons, hamburger stands, even dental practices. At one point, they demanded a cut of proceeds from the annual festival honoring Saint Joseph — forcing the Catholic Church to cancel it.

“You can’t imagine the fear people are living with,” Ramón Castro, the Catholic bishop in Morelos, told worshipers at a recent Sunday Mass, after visiting Cuautla. Gangs were demanding that tortillerías hand over 50,000 pesos in protection money — about $3,000, three times as much as in Cuernavaca. Trucks carrying sugar cane had to pay the same amount, to enter the local mill.

“Fifty thousand!” exclaimed the bishop. The sugar employees “are going to wind up working for them.”

The sermon made the front pages of national newspapers; it was rare for anyone to say such things publicly.

The following day, the coordinator of the truckers at Cuautla’s sugar mill was shot dead. Two weeks later, a prominent local butcher was killed, after complaining to local authorities about extortion.

Tortillerías are especially vulnerable to extortion. They do brisk sales; the average Mexican eats 165 pounds of tortillas a year. Nearly all customers pay cash.

But the threat of crime doesn’t stop at the tiny tortilla shops. It overshadows nearly every step of the tortilla process.

The northwestern state of Sinaloa is famed for the cartel once led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. It’s also an agricultural powerhouse that produces the best white corn for tortillas.

Crime groups have infiltrated the public water system in Sinaloa, imposing their own people in offices that oversee irrigation, according to two agricultural leaders in the state who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing security fears. Farmers allied with the cartel pay little or nothing for water, the leaders said. Other customers are assessed an extra “tax.”

“They realized what a good business this can be, especially given that the price of drugs has dropped,” said one of the agricultural leaders.

Mexico’s National Water Commission said the distribution of water for irrigation is handled by a local concession, not the government. Emilio González Gastélum, president of the state association that manages the concession, dismissed the allegations as “just rumors.” He said that water fees were set by a governing board in consultation with farmers.

Once corn is loaded onto trucks and trains, other organized crime groups take a cut. Gangs, many carrying semiautomatic rifles, have robbed nearly 70,000 trucks carrying manufactured goods and farm produce on Mexican highways in the past five years, according to Concamin, a national business chamber.

The big cartels see such robberies as another revenue stream, said Héctor Manuel Romero Sánchez, a transportation security consultant. They “are trying to raise funds to invest in their biggest businesses — which are trafficking migrants, weapons and, obviously, drugs.”

In some areas, crime groups are also taking over corn distribution. In Guerrero state, which adjoins Morelos, cartels strong-arm farmers into selling corn to them, and then force tortillerías to purchase it. The gangs even inspect the shops’ inventories to ensure they’re not buying elsewhere.

“If you have extra corn, they beat you,” said one tortilla employee in the historic silver-mining city of Taxco.

After taking office in 2018, López Obrador declared the “war on drugs” over. It had turned Mexico into a battleground, he said, without reducing the flow of narcotics. He scaled back cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and called for a renegotiation of the Mérida Initiative, a decade-long plan under which the U.S. government had provided more than $3 billion in security equipment and training.

“It hasn’t worked,” the president said.

López Obrador disbanded the federal police and cut funds for local cops, widely seen as corrupt. He fashioned a two-pronged strategy — relying on the military and a new, 130,000-strong national guard to keep the peace, while offering scholarships and job-training programs to deter young people from crime.

The Mexican president has defended his “hugs, not bullets” policy, noting the reduction in homicides and a decline in other major crimes such as kidnapping. In January, López Obrador announced that the percentage of Mexicans who said they felt “unsafe” in their city had dropped to its lowest level in a decade. “People feel like things are getting better,” he said. Still, 59 percent of city dwellers reported feeling unsafe.

Security Minister Rosa Icela Rodríguez declined a request for an interview.

Sergio Aguayo, a political scientist, said the president had provided “no evidence those social programs are reducing the strength of organized crime.”

Luis de la Calle, an economist who has written about extortion, said slashing investment in local security forces had boomeranged. “When you have an absence of the state,” he said, “somebody fills it.”

Many analysts point to Mexico’s weak justice system and low spending on security as structural causes of the expansion of organized crime. Nationwide, only 1.3 percent of crimes are reported and solved, according to the nonprofit group Impunidad Cero. Few extortionists are ever convicted.

Uriel Carmona, the attorney general of Morelos, said in an interview that it’s hard for the justice system to function when citizens don’t trust authorities enough to provide information about extortion. And not only is there a lack of local police, he said; those on the job are paid miserably. “They’re tempted by corruption.”

When Carmona’s investigators arrested a group of alleged extortioners in Cuautla in April, they discovered that one was a former police officer. An investigation into the Acapulcos gang in 2022 produced evidence that it was being protected by members of the Cuautla police force, according to the attorney general’s office.

But the crime economy doesn’t only thrive because of dirty cops. In many cases, the gangs have political cover. “Drug traffickers are totally involved in the elections,” said Castro, the bishop.

In January 2022, the Sol de México newspaper published a bombshell — photos of the Morelos governor, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, with the leaders of three crime groups. Blanco, a member of the ruling Morena party, told reporters he hadn’t known they were gangsters. “I take photos with everyone,” he said.

The case is under investigation.

On a recent visit to Morelos, López Obrador praised Blanco as a “great man.” His party has nominated the outgoing governor for a congressional seat.

Turning up at the U.S. border

Local elections have become increasingly violent as crime groups try to win control of mayoral offices.

A research project called “Voting Amid Bullets” tallied 836 attacks against elected authorities, political candidates, government employees and party activists during the past six years. That’s nearly triple the number under President Felipe Calderón, whose six-year term ended in 2012.

The crime groups have forced tens of thousands of Mexicans to flee their communities in recent years, according to the U.N. refugee agency and nonprofit groups.

Increasingly, the displaced are turning up at the U.S. border.

The Kino Border Initiative, a migrant-services organization in the Mexican city of Nogales, found that 88 percent of the Mexican migrants it interviewed last year cited violence as their reason for leaving home. That compares with only 6 percent eight years earlier.

Many migrants said they could no longer tolerate the extortion demands, said Pedro De Velasco, advocacy director at the organization. “It becomes impossible to make the payments.”

Juan de Dios Navarrete understands why people migrate when extortioners strike. He owns the two tortilla shops attacked in Cuautla in November. The 15-year-old boy who was wounded by gunfire was his son, working the counter.

His panicked family urged Navarrete to leave the country.

But he had already done that. He spent two unhappy years in the Bronx back in the 1990s, working in a supermarket and at a restaurant, before coming home with an idea: to start a chain of tortillerías.

As he surveyed the damage to his downtown shop after the shooting, Navarrete became increasingly furious. He wasn’t going to run away, he decided. He was going to demonstrate.

He turned to a local journalist, who was doing a Facebook hit.

“We citizens have to make noise,” he said into the cellphone camera, waving his arms. “We have to come together.”

Who else could residents rely on? Not the police. Not the army.

“Let’s get together and clean up our city,” he said, stuttering in frustration. “Please support me.”

Navarrete waited for someone to join him. And waited.

Finally, he went home. After a few days, he reopened his shops. The customers returned, handing over their white cotton napkins.

Shielded by new steel bars, under the gaze of security cameras, his employees filled them with stacks of warm tortillas.

Ríos reported from Monterrey, Mexico. Marcos Vizcarra in Culiacán, Estrella Pedroza in Cuernavaca and Gabriela Martínez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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