MEXICO CITY (AP) — Business and church leaders say they are being hit by a wave of extortion demands by criminal gangs in Mexico's north-central state of Guanajuato, which was recently considered a Mexican success story for attracting high-tech manufacturing investment, including five auto assembly plants.

But after the federal government's crackdown on pipeline fuel thefts early this year, gangs began targeting local businesses in the city of Celaya for shakedowns.

Arturo Gonzalez Palomino, head of the state's association of auto dealerships, said Tuesday that at least two car lots in Celaya have been shot up by criminals demanding protection payments.

He said the most recent attack occurred at a John Deere equipment dealership late last week.

"They spayed the dealership with gunfire, the way they have before," Gonzalez Palomino said.

A previous attack the week before shot out the windows at a Ford dealership.

Gonzalez Palomino said other dealerships in the city have received extortion demands by telephone calls or notes containing explicit or implicit threats of violence.

The local bishop told local media that even the Roman Catholic Church has been targeted for extortion, with priests receiving about 20 phone calls demanding protection payments.

"We are united in prayer with all those who suffer, and with all those who seek a better Celaya, a Celaya at peace," Bishop Benjamín Castillo Plascencia said in a statement

In August, the gangs in Celaya were so bold that when local tortilla shop owners protested the extortion problem at city hall, gunmen immediately attacked one of their businesses, killing three employees. The Celaya Tortilla Industry Association said in a statement that "many colleagues have opted to close" in the face of constant demands for protection money.

The gangs used to make money drilling illegal taps in government pipelines to steal diesel and gasoline that they later sold. But that income was cut off when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador cracked down on the thefts in January, sending troops to guard pipelines and shutting down some ducts to allow fuel to be transported by tanker trucks.

Guanajuato was once a largely peaceful farming and industrial state. It's state capital, also called Guanajuato, and the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende have long drawn tourists to their cobble-stone streets.

But homicides have surged in recent years, with 2,275 murders in the state in the first eight months of 2019, almost 2½ times the 944 killings in the same period of 2017. The state had a homicide rate of about 56 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018.

San Miguel de Allende has not been spared the violence. In early October, two men were killed there when gunmen opened fire on a funeral procession, and assailants shot two police officers to death on a city street in July.

A global think tank estimated in a report earlier this year that Guanajuato suffered the second-highest economic cost due to crime of any state in Mexico, outpaced only by the more populous State of Mexico, which surrounds Mexico City on three sides.

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