Mexican drug cartels have evolved into mafia empires, charging protection fees to businesses and providing social services and jobs where government cannot, the AP reports. Behind it lurks the threat of violence or kidnapping, which drug lords carry out with near impunity. "Today, the traffickers have big companies, education, careers," one lawmaker says. "They're businessman of the year."
Mexico's war on drugs and falling US cocaine profits helped transform the cartels, pushing them to seek profits in "turf taxes" and stolen-good trafficking. The government responded by launching a nationwide anti-extortion program; locals have fought back by shuttering businesses or moving away. One town dug ditches around its perimeter to keep kidnappers away. "Even with the ditches, they still came in and kidnapped five people," one official said.