A road paved with extortion

Times Staff Writer

When 40 Santa Ana residents return in a caravan of vehicles this month to La Presa, a small village in Michoacan Mexico, they will come with presents for relatives and to dedicate a new town plaza partially paid for with money they earned in California.

But that doesn't mean they will get the red-carpet treatment.

Even though they are Mexican nationals, the migrants say their American cars and clothing are dead giveaways to men claiming to be police who shake them down for money as they wind their way home for the holidays.

Though Americans might be considered untouchable because they are foreigners, migrants say they are easy prey for extortionists, who usually ask for $20 to several hundred dollars.

The demands are an insult to those who annually provide millions of dollars to Mexico in the form of remittances to their families and contributions to local public works projects, immigrant leaders say.

If they protest, the migrants say, they are threatened with having their vehicles impounded, or other tactics that might delay their annual return to their native towns. As a consequence, many fortify themselves with a handful of $20 bills before crossing the border, resigned to paying.

"[It's] an aggression toward migrants returning home. It doesn't matter where it happens. It's part of the culture and I wonder if it will ever stop," said Aureliano Serrato, a Santa Ana gardener who said he has been forced to pay extortion on highways and at airports on his trips home to La Presa.

"You cross the border and the corruption begins," said Serrato, who led a drive to collect $40,000 for the La Presa plaza. "It's like they are waiting for us."

In the last 15 years, the Mexican government has made efforts to curtail the practice, and some immigrants said they noted fewer solicitations since Vicente Fox became president in 2000. They hope the situation will improve more during the presidency of Felipe Calderon, who was inaugurated Friday.

Yet Mexican immigrants remain "perfect targets" for low-paid police officers looking to supplement their incomes, said Eduardo Bohorquez, executive director of Transparencia Mexicana, a nonprofit group that tracks Mexican corruption.

Police "know the migrants have dollars, that normally they do not have high levels of education and that they don't know about Mexican law," said Bohorquez.

This year, Florencia Martinez, the national coordinator of a program that seeks to help immigrants as they return home, visited several U.S. cities to educate migrants about their rights in anticipation of the holiday travel season, when 1.2 million Mexican nationals are expected to return to their hometowns.

"We've made great strides, but we still have work to do," she said.

Martinez talked to immigrants about how much new merchandise they are allowed to bring into Mexico and how to legally enter with a foreign car. Knowledge of the law, she said, is the migrants' greatest weapon against extortion.

Though migrants can refuse to meet extortion demands and can file official complaints, few turn to the Mexican government for help.

In 2005, only 40 people filed complaints, Martinez said. "What we want to show is that we are taking these complaints very seriously, that there is a value in complaining."

Southern California immigrants are angered about the way they are treated by Mexican authorities. At a recent meeting in Santa Ana, they told her and other Mexican officials about their experiences.

Yet for many immigrants, the thought of refusing to pay extortion or filing a complaint seems risky and, at the very least, time consuming. Many say they just pay.

Juan Alvarez, 44, of Garden Grove said he filed a complaint last year but was never told of any consequence.

Alvarez, who spoke during the recent Santa Ana meeting, said he returned to his native Mexico City last Christmas and was halted while he stopped for gas in the state of Sonora by a group of men. Armed with rifles, they demanded all of his money -- $200 -- saying it was a toll for using the road, Alvarez said. When he reported the incident to federal police, Alvarez said he was told he shouldn't have been on the road because it was dangerous.

Once in Mexico City, he said local police stopped him because he had an American driver's license and asked him for $100 or they would confiscate his car.

"Traveling on the highway is really dangerous. You just don't know what can happen," Alvarez said.

Others take matters into their own hands. To avoid problems, some families travel in caravans to watch one other, said Adolfo Sierra, who heads a group of immigrants that annually returns to Guanajuato state in the central highlands.

Carlos Sifuentes, president of the Federation of Zacatecas Clubs in Orange County, said when he was stopped and asked for money by a man wearing a police uniform, he replied that he was a ranking member of an immigrant club. He said the man seemed impressed and immediately let him go.

"When [officials] can't find something illegal that you have done, they just outright ask for money," said Sifuentes, who said on another recent trip he was approached by a man dressed as a federal police officer who asked him for $20 for coffee.

When Maria Torres and her family were returning to Aguascalientes, they were pulled over in Ciudad Juarez by men dressed as police officers. She said they told her they would have to confiscate the car because the headlights were not on.

She and her husband asked the officer for his name but he would not give it, Torres said. The family was given the option to pay a fine on the spot or wait until the next day when municipal offices would be open.

Her husband, she said, gave the men $20.


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