Drug trafficking has been the primary focus of Mexican cartels, providing most of their obscene profits and motivating much of the bloodshed they have caused.
But as cartels have expanded into other areas of operations, and as law-enforcement efforts have forced them to seek new moneymaking ventures, those cartels have started kidnapping and extorting Mexicans with more frequency.
And social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been a boon to these new criminal endeavours.
“Well, the extortion business is a profitable one for organised crime. And in countries like Mexico, it’s sadly pretty common that people get these threats,” Tom Wainwright, the author of “Narconomics” and the Economist’s former reporter in Mexico City, told Business Insider.
“And the new way of doing this, of course, is by social media.”
“People get messages though Facebook or through Twitter. And the thing about Facebook is that of course the people who are extorting you know about your family,” Wainwright said. “They have seen pictures of them, and they can intimidate you with these details. And so what we’re seeing is an increase in that kind of extortion.”
Some criminal organisations have proven to be more enthusiastic about extortion and kidnapping than others.
“The cartels that are most effective at this are ones like the Zetas, which have a very well-known brand, which allows them to intimidate people with the sort of fame of their brand,” Wainwright told Business Insider.
As social-media use, and thus social-media sharing, have grown more popular, kidnappers and extortionists have seized on resources like Facebook and Twitter to identify new targets.
“All of the information that you leave behind on the social media is valuable to the cartels in just the same way that that information is useful for marketing purposes to regular companies,” Wainwright explained, adding:
For companies, it’s really useful to know what consumers like and what they’re doing, and for cartels that are in the extortion business, it’s more useful still. If they know where you are, if they know where you’ve been, if they know who your family are, then this is all information that they can use against you to try to extort more money.
‘Freedom to commit crime’
Kidnapping and extortion aren’t only the purview of cartels.
According to a Mexican federal deputy, police officers have been involved in 80% of kidnappings in recent months, sometimes as part of “police cartels” dedicated to kidnapping.
One such cartel consisted of more than 6,500 officers and operated throughout the country.
Local police forces have been implicated in the abduction and suspected killing of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher-training school in Guerrero in late 2014, a crime that still roils Mexico.
“To have such [police] elements involved in cases of kidnapping, it causes the victims to not dare report it for fear of reprisals, which generates impunity for the kidnappers and gives them the freedom to commit crime,” deputy Germán Ernesto Ralis Cumplido, of the Citizen Movement party, said in late March.
More recently, there has been a growth in “express” kidnapping, where victims are seized, their families are contacted with a relatively modest ransom demand, and, if the money is paid, the victim is released within hours.
A Mexican nongovernmental organisation has reported that there are 600 express kidnappings a day, for which the ransom varies around $400 in cash, jewellery, or electronics.
Kidnapping in Mexico amounts to a $30.8 billion industry, with 88 cases a day averaging payments of $9,706.
The scale of kidnapping and extortion in Mexico has grown so much that now people of modest means, who would not have been appealing targets for extortion in the past, are getting targeted.
“Now even street vendors, such as taco stands, are extorted in zones where the cartels hold sway,” Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who has done fieldwork in some hotspots for cartel activity in Mexico, told Business Insider.
“Some of my relatives in Michoacan receive so many extortion calls that they must change their phone numbers every few months,” Chesnut said, “and these are middle-class professionals, who are far from affluent.”