MORELIA, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican police on Friday hunted assailants who set ablaze a delivery truck for PepsiCo’s local snack food subsidiary in what appeared to be the latest attack against the firm by a drug cartel.
A series of attacks on trucks and warehouses belonging to PepsiCo’s Sabritas brand started last weekend and are thought to be the first to directly target a global company during Mexico’s bloody war on drug traffickers.
The truck carrying potato chips and snacks was ambushed Thursday evening as it made its delivery rounds in communities outside Morelia, the capital of the Western state of Michoacan, a police official said on Friday.
“The people intercepted the vehicle, set it on fire and the driver suffered some burns,” an official at the state police said. “State police are intensifying patrols on the highways.”
The attack involved three men with assault rifles.
The driver, who was at the wheel during the attack, managed to escape from the burning vehicle and is being treated for second degree burns on his arms and face, local paramedics said.
Five Sabritas warehouses and about 30 company trucks were firebombed last weekend.
Three of the warehouses were in the highly violent Michoacan and two in neighboring Guanajuato, which is less known for cartel activity.
Extortion attempts and attacks on smaller businesses are common in Mexico’s drug war but multinational companies and their subsidiaries have largely escaped the violence.
Mexico, Latin America’s second-biggest economy, has continued to attract foreign investment even as the country’s drug war escalated since 2006. But global firms have favored states with lower levels of violence.
Investigators are still probing the motive of the attacks but authorities in Guanajuato on Monday arrested four suspects linked to the so-called Knights Templar cartel.
An offshoot of the La Familia cartel, the Knights Templar members claim to be devout Christians while they smuggle drugs and shake down companies.
On Thursday, banners signed by the Knights Templar were strung up in Morelia and other Michoacan towns claiming responsibility for the attacks on the PepsiCo subsidiary.
The signs accused Sabritas of letting government agents pose as delivery men to use the company’s trucks for surveillance and threatened other firms that help the police.
“Companies are sources of employment for Michoacan and we respect their work. But they must limit themselves to their business area or they will be punished,” said the printed banners, which were hung from bridges and buildings.
Mexican drug cartels employ broad networks of look-outs who have made it increasingly difficult for police to capture traffickers, leading federal agents to rely more on undercover operations.
However, in interviews with Mexican media, company executives denied they let police ride in their trucks and said they do not know the motive for the attacks. They also said they have no knowledge of cartel members demanding extortions.
Government officials also denied they have brought private companies into their national offensive on cartels and promised to defend the subsidiary from further violence.
“We have no information that says the damaged vehicles were being used for anything besides their normal deliveries,” Obdulio Avila, deputy interior ministry said in a Friday news conference. “We will not permit organized crime to attack any people or companies in the country.”
Drug cartel gunmen have burned down businesses in Michoacan and other states for not paying extortion payments in the past.
On Wednesday, assailants shot and injured the owner of an avocado company in the Michoacan town of Uruapan.
Alejandro Alvarez was also a former president of the state’s avocado producers association and had publicly complained that gangsters were extorting avocado companies.
The Knights Templar cartel uses the name of the medieval crusaders to try to create a positive image in their native Michoacan, according to Mexican drug agents. Cartel members even hold medieval battle re-enactments, and police recently raided a safe house full of dozens of plastic helmets.
However, agents say the cartel is also one of the biggest producers of crystal methamphetamine for U.S. users.
Knights Templar gunmen are currently fighting bloody battles against rival traffickers in the neighboring states of both Jalisco and Guerrero.
Around 55,000 people have died in drug-related violence since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took power in December 2006 and launched a military crackdown on cartels.
Additional reporting by Michael O'Boyle, Ioan Grillo and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by Andrew Hay and M.D. Golan