On June 3rd the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an extensive investigation on what they called the Riviera Maya Gang. The extraordinary collaboration among journalists and civil society revealed how a group of Romanian-led criminals operated from Cancún and stole US $1.2 billion using a network of rigged ATMs.
Known as skimming, rigged ATMs steal card numbers which are copied onto blank cards who are then given to criminal associates to withdraw cash from ATMs around the world. Their operation was so successful that it is estimated they captured more than 10 percent of the global market for this type of criminal business venture.
To learn all the details of their criminal activities I highly recommend you read the investigation or watch the short documentary produced for the project. What I offer next are three brief reflections on how the modus operandi of the gang can help us expand how we think about the business models of organized crime in Mexico.
Mexico’s criminal groups are not all drug traffickers. If we asked people on the street what do they think about Mexico and organized crime, it is likely their response would include some reference to “narcos” or drug trafficking. To be sure, Mexico has experienced a rise in violence in the last 13 years, including homicides and this violence is often attributed to conflicts among competing drug trafficking organizations.
As my colleagues and I have documented, violence in Mexico, however, is not only (and not always) linked to drug trafficking but part of a far more complex criminal landscape. The violence that has forcibly displaced communities in Guerrero’s mountain region is different from the one that endangers, and kills, women in urban settings such as Ecatepec. It is not only that the outcomes vary but the conditions that caused the violence cannot be solely explained by the transnational drug trade.
The case of the Riviera Maya Gang should help bring home this point. Notably, the criminals were from Romania, rather than Mexican natives, and their criminal activity was not linked to the production or transportation of illicit drugs. To the contrary, their enterprise required a booming tourism sector and routine financial services such as ATMs. Their business model was built around legal activities, and with legitimate partners, that could easily blend in with the economic activity of beach destinations in Mexico, not tunnels across the U.S.-Mexico border.
You can make billions, one dollar at a time. As the investigation from OCCRP points out, while illegal, the business model of the Riviera Maya Gang is also a rags-to-riches story. More importantly, the group took to heart the notion that “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. In developing their criminal enterprise, the group was mostly cautious and patient in three areas:
- Rather than emptying the bank accounts of individuals who used the rigged ATMs, the gang withdrew around US $200 from each card they copied.
- The withdrawal would not happen immediately but occurred months after the card data had been copied.
- The withdrawal occurred in ATMs located in places such as India, Barbados, Brazil and Japan which obscured the link between the individual’s vacation in Mexico and the card data theft.
With a network of about 100 ATMs this gave the group approximately US $240 million a year in non-taxable income, US $200 at a time.
Public displays of violence can be your downfall. Representations in popular culture of criminals often portray violence. Certainly, stereotypes work because they are, to some degree, true. Fans of movies about crime may recall the famous scene in Scarface where Tony Montana trying (and failing) to fend off an attack at his Miami mansion wields a modified M-16 immortalizing the phrase “say hello to my little friend”.
Reality, however, has shown us that different business models of organized crime require different types of violence and exerting it, can be counterproductive. As the case of the Maya Riviera Gang demonstrates, their fortune-making skimming business came into focus once an internal feud escalated to murder and apparently led to confrontations with corrupt police agents in the state of Quintana Roo. Members of the Mayan Riviera Gang have even publicly denounced the state’s police including an open letter to the police chief and holding a press conference from Cancún where they alleged violations to their human rights.
The lesson defies pop culture but is straightforward: exerting public violence is not a standard operating procedure for all organized crime. This does not mean, that they lack firepower capacity, but depending on your activities, there must be a strategic component of when and against whom it will be used. Violence, after all, is a costly input of criminal activities.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc