MEXICO CITY – A drug cartel lieutenant has been detained in a series of firebombing attacks on Mexican potato-chip company Sabritas, a subsidiary of U.S. food giant PepsiCo. Businessmen and experts said Monday the attacks were the first coordinated targeting of a multinational company in Mexico's 5 ½-year-long drug war.
Five Sabritas warehouses and vehicle lots were attacked Friday and Saturday in the Mexican states of Michoacan and Guanajuato. Witnesses in one case described armed, masked men who tossed firebombs and torched dozens of the company's distribution trucks and some warehouses.
Gerardo Gutierrez, president of Mexico's Business Coordinating Council, said Monday that it was "an isolated case" of the kind of extortion that gangs have previously practiced with small and medium-sized businesses. He called on authorities to act immediately to prevent the practice from spreading.
"What we cannot allow is for this kind of isolated case to become generalized," Gutierrez said. "The authorities have to take forceful action."
In a speech to an anti-crime conference Monday, President Felipe Calderon said drug cartels threaten growth and development and called them "an obstacle to prosperity because they attack companies large and small."
The state attorney general's office in Guanajuato confirmed Monday that several suspects had been detained in the attacks there, and that one was identified as a lieutenant of the Knights Templar drug cartel. The office did not suggest a possible motive.
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former official in Mexico's CISEN intelligence agency, said it was the first attack he could recall against a transnational company in Mexico. Even in Mexico's most violent city, Ciudad Juarez, the warring drug gangs have largely left alone the many foreign-operated assembly plants known as maquiladoras.
"In Ciudad Juarez, they practically never tried to blackmail the maquiladoras," Hope said. "They focused more on small businesses ... they are easier targets, and with an industrial firm, one doesn't know exactly who to blackmail. It's not as clear who signed the checks or controls the checkbook."
The huge state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos oil company has suffered hundreds of non-violent fuel thefts from pipelines and the kidnapping of some employees. But only leftist rebels have tried to set fire to its facilities.
In a statement issued Sunday, PepsiCo said five distribution centers were damaged, but no one was injured in the attacks and the amount of the damages had not been calculated.
The company appeared to respond to emails that circulated in Michoacan, home of the Knights Templar drug cartel, suggesting the attacks were revenge for the unproven allegation that prosecutors used Sabritas' extensive fleet of delivery trucks to gather intelligence.
"We repeat that in accordance with our code of conduct, all of our operations are carried out in the current regulatory framework and our vehicles and facilities are used exclusively to carry our products to our customer and clients," the company said. The company would not say whether that statement responded to the spying allegations.
Hope said such a spying scenario sounded unlikely, if not impossible. Sabritas employs more than 70,000 people and has a nationwide delivery fleet of about 14,500 trucks that are a common sight even in the most dangerous and remote parts of Mexico.
Hope said the attacks may not represent a new stage in drug gang extortions, but rather stem from the peculiar characteristics of the Knights Templar, a pseudo-religious cartel that split from Michoacan's La Familia cartel in 2011.
The Knights Templar organization is a relatively local, minor player in drug smuggling, trafficking mainly in methamphetamines and marijuana. With little access to the more lucrative cocaine and heroin business, cartel members have sought to raise money from other criminal activities.
"The Knights Templar have been more aggressive in their use of extortion and alternative sources (of income) than practically any other cartel, except the Zetas," Hope said. The hyperviolent Zetas cartel was formed along Mexico's Gulf coast by deserters from an elite military unit and has been linked to the extortion and kidnapping of civilians.