The logo for Sabritas, a Mexican snack chip subsidiary of PepsiCo, which saw dozens of vehicles and five warehouses burned by a drug cartel this month. Photo: chrizar/Flickr
Mexican drug cartels are not strictly drug cartels. One of their fastest-growing markets is extortion of private citizens and businesses. Don’t pay, and you can be threatened — or worse. But largely, the cartels target small businesses and individuals, and stay away from the larger industries. Now several arson attacks over the weekend against a Mexican snack chip subsidiary might be the first time the cartels have targeted a multinational corporation.
That corporation would be PepsiCo. According to press reports, masked men attacked five warehouses and vehicle lots on Friday and Saturday nights belonging to the U.S. snack and soft drink giant. More specifically, PepsiCo’s Mexican subsidiary: Sabritas. Dozens of yellow delivery trucks — which transport Sabritas chips and Fritos, Cheetos and Ruffles (among other brands) for the Mexican market — were burned. The good news: No one was injured or killed. At least one member of the Knights Templar cartel was reportedly arrested. Video has also emerged of firefighters battling the blazing trucks and the European Pressphoto Agency released images of Sabritas’ smiley-face mascot illuminated by the flames.
“What we cannot allow is for this kind of isolated case to become generalized,” Gerardo Gutierrez, president of Mexico’s Business Coordinating Council, told the Associated Press. “The authorities have to take forceful action.”
What’s already generalized is kidnapping, carjacking and extortion of private citizens. Corporations are simply too large, too complex, and it’s not easy — from a cartel’s perspective — to determine who within a corporation should be threatened in an extortion attempt. (Sabritas dominates the Mexican snack food market with about 75 percent market share.) If you’re looking to coerce the manager who is writing the checks, you might as well try to threaten a computer database. Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Pemex, has been subject to attacks on its oil pipelines. But this is due to theft, not extortion. Maquiladora factories — the duty-free workshops that sprawl along the U.S.-Mexico border — have largely been spared. So why did the cartel attack PepsiCo?
Again, it’s probably an extortion attempt. But another explanation involves rumors originating in the western states of Michoacán and Guanajuato — where the arson attacks occurred – that allege some of the company’s 14,500 delivery trucks are used by the federal security services for undercover intelligence operations. PepsiCo even issued a denial: “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,” read a company statement.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of the story: the perpetrators. A smaller splinter group of the western La Familia cartel, the Knights Templar have emerged only recently as a self-styled Christian military order. Before the March visit to Mexico by Pope Benedict XVI, the cartel pledged to cease fighting for the duration of the pontiff’s visit. The cartel has also sought to boost its appeal to the public through populist rhetoric, and has claimed it convinced Michoacan meat and tortilla vendors to lower their prices under “no pressure, no blackmail, much less charging fees.”
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former official for CISEN (Mexico’s equivalent to the CIA), suggested to the AP that the Knights Templar “have to be more aggressive in their use of extortion and alternative sources [of income] than practically any other cartel, except the Zetas,” he said.
Knights Templar propaganda likewise paints them as a muscle-bound medieval knights. Who are now at war with Cheetos — and Pepsi. Read that again. Thankfully, no one was hurt.