Crumbling Under Corruption

Mexico's bus line operators targeted by organized crime
by Published on
Photo by Daniel Randolph
http://www.flickr.com/photos/duhawkdanran/

In Juarez, the Holguin brothers built their city bus line with hard work and persistence. By 2008 they had 20 drivers and two dozen buses delivering factory workers to maquiladoras across the city. Their business was prospering. Then on June 24, 2008, Alberto Holguin, the head of the family business, received a phone call from a private number. The man said he represented the Juarez Cartel. “Do not hang up and pay close attention,” he said. The caller demanded that Holguin and his three brothers Alfredo, Roman, and Luis pay $800 weekly to the cartel as protection money. He specified the place and time where the money should be dropped off every week – at a park near their office.

Alberto told the man they couldn’t afford to pay such a large amount of money. The caller had a chilling reply: “We know your names, addresses and the number of buses you own,” he said. “If you don’t pay we’ll burn your buses and kill every one of your family members.”

The next day at the weekly meeting of bus line operators in Juarez, Alberto announced that his family was being extorted and they had received death threats if they didn’t pay. He raised the idea that they go on strike to get the government’s attention and that they refuse to pay the cartel. There were 25 union members at the meeting, representing 12 bus lines in Juarez. The other members at the meeting nodded. People were afraid but no one was against it, says Alberto. They’d also received the same threats.

The union members went home to consider Holguin’s proposal. But by the next meeting they had decided it was too dangerous. “They were afraid of attacks to their families, their homes and buses,” he says.

Soon thereafter, Alberto received another phone call from the cartel representative with a warning; “Stop trying to get the union members not to pay or else.” The Holguin brothers made a police report but nothing happened. They also had a union representative ask the governor for help. “He was very receptive but nothing ever came from it,” he says.

So, the Holguin brothers started paying the cartel on a weekly basis. But they still spoke out against the extortion and tried to persuade their union to go on strike. That’s when the killing and attacks to their business started. On August 7, 2008, two buses were burned. Then on May 15, 2009, Alfredo’s son Alberto Alonso, 23, was shot down in a Juarez restaurant. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to lose one of your children,” says Alfredo. “It’s worse than if they killed you.”

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After the murder of Alberto Alonso, the entire extended Holguin family fled Juarez and sought asylum in the United States. “We were afraid for our lives,” says Roman. “They’ve attacked our buses, they killed my nephew and they’ve threatened my workers and our families.”

The Mexican government has done nothing to stop the persecution. “As transportation professionals we are unionized, we pay taxes and it is the obligation of the government to provide us with some security,” Roman says.

Law Enforcement also Wants its Cut

Instead of protecting the Holguins from persecution, law enforcement also wanted a cut. In 2009, President Felipe Calderon sent more than 8,000 soldiers and federal police officers to Juarez to help fight organized crime. The federal police were formed in 1998 to combat organized crime and are under the direction of the Secretariat of Public Security.

In 2010, federal police officers began paying visits to the Holguins’ office in Juarez asking for money. “They never gave an amount and when we told them we were already paying they said they’d check it out and then go away,” Roman says. That same year, Calderon withdrew the military patrols from Juarez because of numerous human rights complaints filed by citizens. He then bolstered the federal police patrols with at least 5,000 agents patrolling the streets of Juarez.

The federal police officers, who are masked and dressed in black military uniforms, set up checkpoints and began extorting bus drivers, says Roman. “If you don’t pay them they threaten to take your drivers license and your credentials away. This happens at least twice a week,” he says.

Bus line operators who don’t pay the cartel are killed and their buses attacked with Molotov cocktails or grenades and shot up with assault rifles. Innocent passengers have been killed. Another bus line operator in Juarez who asked to remain anonymous had five workers and his brother kidnapped from the bus garage after they refused to pay an extortion. The family paid a ransom for his brother but he was killed anyway. Their buses were fired upon by criminals.

The family is now seeking asylum in the United States and trying to run their bus line business remotely. They now pay the cartel weekly. “If the United States grants my asylum I will sell my bus line and I will never step foot in Mexico again,” the man said bitterly.

Before fleeing to the United States, the Holguin family considered moving to another part of Mexico to start a new bus line service. But they found that their counterparts were experiencing the same threats and extortion from organized crime. In Veracruz, shortly before Christmas three passenger buses were attacked and several people killed, including three U.S. citizens from Cleburne, Texas, traveling to see family members for the holiday.

“They are even having this problem in Central America,” says Alfredo.

In Guatemala, innocent bus passengers have been murdered and buses torched by criminals since 2008. The media there refer to the violence as the “bus wars.”

The Holguin family blames the government for the breakdown in law and order in Juarez. “The government has done nothing to help us,” says Alfredo. “This goes on because corruption exists in all arms of the government. And the most tragic thing is that this corruption has brought business people to their knees and we are caught between the cartels and the government.”

Bus line owners are especially vulnerable to extortion and persecution by criminals because they travel in remote areas and often at night, says George W. Grayson, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a specialist on security and organized crime in Mexico. “They also have a reputation for transporting drugs either because they’ve been forced to do it by cartels or they’ve been paid,” he says.

Grayson says, however, that just about every sector of business is now being forced to pay extortion. “I can’t think of any business or profession that isn’t a target.”

In the case of bus line operators, the plague of extortions and threats is especially lethal. Buses are a vital means of transportation in Mexico and used by the majority of the population. In the violent conflict innocent passengers sometimes become targets to send the owners a message when they refuse to pay criminals. In 2010, three buses transporting workers to maquiladoras outside Juarez were attacked by gunmen. Four people were killed and 15 were injured.

These days anyone who runs a bus line in Juarez pays the cartel to survive. “We used to make a profit but now we are basically working to pay our extortion,” Alfredo Holguin says. “It is truly a disaster the times we are living in right now in Mexico. You can’t complain or seek justice because they will kill you.”

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.