MEXICO CITY (AP) — A drug cartel lieutenant has been detained in a series of firebombing attacks on Mexican potato-chip company Sabritas, a subsidiary of U.S. food giant PepsiCo. Businessmen and experts said Monday the attacks were the first coordinated targeting of a multinational company in Mexico's 5 ½-year-long drug war.
Five Sabritas warehouses and vehicle lots were attacked Friday and Saturday in the Mexican states of Michoacan and Guanajuato. Witnesses in one case described armed, masked men who tossed firebombs and torched dozens of the company's distribution trucks and some warehouses.
Gerardo Gutierrez, president of Mexico's Business Coordinating Council, said Monday that it was "an isolated case" of the kind of extortion that gangs have previously practiced with small and medium-sized businesses. He called on authorities to act immediately to prevent the practice from spreading.
"What we cannot allow is for this kind of isolated case to become generalized," Gutierrez said. "The authorities have to take forceful action."
In a speech to an anti-crime conference Monday, President Felipe Calderon said drug cartels threaten growth and development and called them "an obstacle to prosperity because they attack companies large and small."
The state attorney general's office in Guanajuato confirmed Monday that several suspects had been detained in the attacks there, and that one was identified as a lieutenant of the Knights Templar drug cartel. The office did not suggest a possible motive.
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former official in Mexico's CISEN intelligence agency, said it was the first attack he could recall against a transnational company in Mexico. Even in Mexico's most violent city, Ciudad Juarez, the warring drug gangs have largely left alone the many foreign-operated assembly plants known as maquiladoras.
"In Ciudad Juarez, they practically never tried to blackmail the maquiladoras," Hope said. "They focused more on small businesses ... they are easier targets, and with an industrial firm, one doesn't know exactly who to blackmail. It's not as clear who signed the checks or controls the checkbook."
The huge state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos oil company has suffered hundreds of non-violent fuel thefts from pipelines and the kidnapping of some employees. But only leftist rebels have tried to set fire to its facilities.