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Agua de Obispo tunnels in Guerrero. Agua de Obispo tunnels in Guerrero.

Crime gangs target infrastructure projects

Extortionists charge fees and set the rules for construction firms

Mexico needs more and better public infrastructure but the companies tasked with their construction often find themselves in direct confrontation with organized crime.

Construction companies are being forced to add an additional 2% to 4% to a project’s total cost to pay derecho de piso, a tariff charged by criminals that gives them the right to operate.

Some companies even go as far as to hire consultants who specialize in management and security to negotiate with criminals, as well as social and non-governmental organizations that might block the movement of workers and supplies in any given area.

These practices have become common in states like Guerrero, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Jalisco, Veracruz and Baja California, but very few companies dare denounce crime gangs before the authorities, said the intelligence director of the security firm Atalaya in a report by Expansión.

The reconstruction of a tunnel project in Guerrero during 2014 offers a glimpse into the way the criminal groups operate.

Workers had seen at least four young men prowling the work site of the tunnels at Agua de Obispo, carrying expensive mobile phones and moving around on scooters. The scouts, known commonly as halcones, used their devices to monitor the workers and the area and keep tabs on those responsible for the work site, including noting their lunch breaks and where they lived.

Intimidation techniques are used even before collecting the derecho de piso begins. On one occasion, a black truck with tinted windows drove into the construction camp, made a couple of sharp turns and then slowly drove away.

A few days later and just two months after the reconstruction work had begun, two individuals approached the site to demand a weekly payment that ranged between 5,000 and 10,000 pesos, and ordered that all activity be halted by nightfall.

In Durango, construction firms working on a highway had to reach several agreements with criminal groups. “We had to give them diesel or gasoline and all our waste materials, like pieces of steel, wood or PVC tubing,” said an engineer with the building materials company Cemex.

“All staff and vehicles had to be clearly identifiable and they even established what hours we could work,” he added.

Restaurants and bars in the Coscomate region of Durango were virtually off-limits for the construction site workers, as were the region’s women. Workers who didn’t follow the rules were beaten and even kidnapped and held captive for a few days.

It has been reported that criminals will extort up to 20% of a project’s total value in states such as Guerrero, Michoacán and Oaxaca. Many companies opt to leave as profit margins can drop considerably, said the general secretary of a construction workers’ union.

Fear and the need for caution have made the subject taboo among construction companies and their representative organizations, which prefer to remain silent than risk speaking out.

According to the National Citizen’s Watchdog, only 1% of extortion cases in Mexico are officially reported, for two main reasons: fear of retaliation and a lack of trust in the authorities.

A survey conducted last year by Obras, a periodical specializing in construction, revealed that over 46% of construction companies and close to 72% of their suppliers have been victims, in one way or another, of organized crime.

Source: CNN Expansión (sp)

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