CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO — Outside the gaily painted gates of the Elena Garro Federal Kindergarten, the grown-ups are afraid.
If daily drug-related killings haven't sown enough alarm in this gritty border city, parents now confront written messages left near several schools warning of unspecified harm unless teachers hand over their annual year-end bonuses.
The threats, printed on posters hung near schools last month, have spread panic among teachers and parents throughout a city rattled by a violent turf war between drug gangs that has killed more than 1,300 people here this year.
Some parents are keeping their children at home, at least through this month, when Mexican teachers receive a yearly bonus of as much as three months' salary. Other parents have sent youngsters back to class, but with trepidation.
"We don't know if these [threats] are real or false," said one mother recently, standing outside the Elena Garro school, which has about 120 pupils ages 3 to 5. . "This is the way things are in Juarez. We don't know anything."
The mother gave only her first name, Judith, for fear that she would be targeted by the people who posted the threat. She said she would keep her 5-year-old daughter home this month, just in case. She wanted to see how things went.
"We're all shocked," she said.
December offers an especially good opportunity for criminals because under Mexican law, workers must be paid a cash bonus, or aguinaldo, usually equal to a month's pay. The bonus is often higher for public school teachers, who earn about $450 to $1,050 a month.
Extortionists for months have laid siege to other livelihoods in Ciudad Juarez, demanding payoffs from bar and restaurant owners and junkyard operators. More than two dozen businesses have been burned to the ground after owners refused to pay. Some junkyards have shut down.
The growing extortion racket is attributed to drug-trafficking groups seeking additional sources of income.
But preying on schools would mark a new low.
It's unclear who posted the threats or to whom the teachers were to hand over their bonuses. Some say the messages were posted by criminal gangs only to throw an edgy city further off balance.
"The objective is to destabilize the population, to create panic," said the mayor, Jose Reyes Ferriz.
Reyes sought to quell the fears by deploying municipal police cadets at entrances to the city's 900 schools. But because there are only 350 cadets, they have to move from school to school, offering piecemeal coverage.
Gabriel Tarango, a cadet standing guard at the Elena Garro school, said he doubted reports that drug cartels were behind the threats. Such a scheme would offer too little money, he reasoned.
"It's just the same people who don't want to work, don't want to do anything, trying to take advantage of the situation that we have in Juarez," he said.
There have been no arrests. Public schools, which are under joint federal and state management, have kept their normal schedules. Teachers say they plan to keep showing up for work, but the threat is another reason to think twice before going out on this city's streets.
"We can't be paralyzed by the threats of these violent people," said Jose Salazar, director of the city's public high schools. "It's up to the authorities to do something about these threats. We as teachers have to keep going forward."
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.