CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — At least once or twice a day, sirens blare here as firefighters in this violent border city speed to the latest store or restaurant that gangsters have firebombed for ignoring extortion demands.
Boarded up businesses and abandoned restaurants give parts of the city a ghostly look as organized crime strangles economic activity.
Now as Christmas approaches, mobsters have chosen a new target, turning their sights on humble schoolteachers.
Painted threats scrawled outside numerous public schools demand that teachers hand over their Christmas bonuses or face the possibility of an armed attack on the teachers — and even the children.
To make the point clear, assailants set fire to a federal preschool in the San Antonio district a week ago, leaving the director's office in smoldering ruins.
Scribbled on the wall in gold paint was the reason: "For not paying."
The targeting of teachers in Juarez's 1,270 preschool, primary and secondary schools is a sign of the depravity that rules in a city whose name has become synonymous with homicide.
Gangs already have shaken down other parts of the municipal social fabric — doctors, dentists and even ambulance drivers.
Now with the targets being teachers, parents have pulled thousands of children from schools where heightened security already had turned them into seeming prisons, enclosed with coils of barbed wire atop concrete walls.
Three schools have closed for fear they might come under armed attack.
"We are scared," admitted Maria de Jesus Casio, principal of the Ramon Lopez Velarde Elementary School. But she also said teachers don't want to pay. "Teachers don't have much money. The salaries are just enough for survival."
Teachers in this city earn an average of $650 a month. Christmas bonuses vary but the average is about a month's pay.
Casio, 53, a veteran teacher with close-cropped reddish hair, said teachers arrived at school one day in late November to find this graffito painted on the outside wall:
"For the well-being of everyone, and the children, pay 50,000 pesos."
That same day, assistant principal Jorge Alberto Palacios said that he found a notice on his pick-up truck that "talked about a massacre of children" and indicated where to drop the money.
A third message came in a school telephone bill.
The threats arrived at a dozen schools, perhaps more, according to news reports, though a senior school official would speak only in general terms.
"The educational system is under threat by criminal groups," Javier Gonzalez, the under secretary for education in northern Chihuahua state, said in an interview. "We're just praying to God that there never is an event of this nature."
Gonzalez said parents want police cruisers posted outside each school "but this kind of possibility doesn't exist" because there aren't enough patrol cars.
Authorities have kept secret when bonuses will be deposited into teachers' bank accounts in hopes of making it more difficult for gangsters to strong arm the teachers.
The lime-green school that Casio leads is awash in graffiti, although inside its fenced grounds, children play merrily.
After the threats arrived, Casio called her teachers together, the 23 from the morning shift and the 13 from the afternoon.
"We explained everything to them. We took a few measures, like trying to leave school all in a group. We set up a phone tree. We told parents to pick up their children promptly," she said.
Security got even tighter. The playground and basketball court that once stayed open till late in the evening now close promptly at 6 p.m. A municipal police officer painted over the threat on the fence.
As in many parts of the city, the block around the school is suffering. A glass store and its glazier owner recently shut down.
"He closed it and moved to El Paso because of extortion," said Palacios, referring to the Texas city across the Rio Grande from Juarez.
Hardly anyone is free from extortionate demands. They come from either of the two major crime groups fighting for control of the Ciudad Juarez area, the Sinaloa Federation or the Juarez cartel. Or they come from the myriad of street gangs who work for the cartels and also battle one another. This year, Juarez has chalked up more than 2,950 homicides, a pace of nearly 10 per day, making it one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Faced with the threat of having their businesses strafed with gunfire or hit by Molotov cocktails, some owners shut or pay extortion but no longer pay city taxes. City revenues plummeted 8 percent this year and are projected to fall 15 percent in 2011, a sign of reduced economic activity, the local El Norte newspaper reported.
"We have 50,000 fewer jobs in Juarez than we did in 2008," said Guillermo Soria, director of the local branch of the National Chamber of Commerce. "Every day, at least two people come to say, 'They are extorting me. What do I do?'"
Soria voiced sadness at the pre-Christmas spate of extortions.
"I think even criminals should have some ethics," Soria said. "Taking away people's Christmas bonuses is really low."
Even as crime gangs target teachers, they are also hitting at the city's 4,000 or so physicians. So far this year, 20 doctors have been kidnapped, and two killed, said Dr. Leticia Chavarria as she emerged from a funeral mass for a beloved surgeon slain by drug gangs last weekend even though his family paid a ransom.
Emergency room doctors are particularly unnerved. Six times this year, armed gangs have burst into hospitals to finish off victims wounded on the street, Chavarria said.
"Every doctor who leaves Juarez leaves a hole," she said. "There is a lack of cardiologists now, and no specialists like this are arriving anymore."
Dr. Alfonso Sanchez Brito, a vascular surgeon, bemoaned how crime had touched most all of the 1.3 million residents of Ciudad Juarez.
"Everyone from the most humble street vendor to high society people are victims of extortion," he said. "The only thing I know is that it is terrorism."
At the pre-primary school hit by arson Dec. 5, director Norma Pena said her school had been sacked of anything valuable.
"They constantly rob from us — the metal bars from the fence, the air conditioners, even the swing sets," Pena said. "The laws are so soft. The laws are no good. When they catch someone, they let them go right away. The criminals threaten the authorities."
Casio, the principal at the elementary school across town, has spent 27 of her 34 years as a teacher and administrator at the same neighborhood school.
"We feel the caring and love people have for our school. This is what keeps us going," Casio said. But the crime gangs are sapping hope. "They respect no one. What is there to rob in this school? And we teachers, with our salaries, have even less."
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