In Mexico, kidnapping is no longer just a problem for the rich

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The relationship between Mauricio and his father had been tense for years. He was, at 21, a father himself but still the baby of the family: cheeky and handsome and his mother's favorite.

His dad, Raimondo Enciso, a self-made man who started with nothing and ended up with a minivan, a pickup, and a bus route in Benito Juarez - collecting fees from drivers as they zoomed in and out of the northern Mexico City slum - thought the boy was soft, spoiled even.

Mauricio came by the house that afternoon, leaning into the entryway, chipping away at the red paint on the doorframe with his fingernails as he grinned at his mom. He was returning the $30 he had borrowed from his father.

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He was pressed for time - someone had hired the minivan. He would stop by later. Or maybe tomorrow. He put a hand on his heart and then blew a kiss.

That was the Monday after Easter last year. And no one has seen Mauricio since.

An estimated 3,000 kidnappings took place in Mexico in 2003, second only to Colombia worldwide. And while historically it has been a scourge only for the wealthy - foreign executives pulled from their fancy cars, children of the elite snatched from the school playground - lower- and middle-class families like the Encisos are increasingly being targeted.

"Kidnapping has become a common industry, taking place among all sectors of the population," says Asael Obando Rios, director of CEISAR, the special antikidnapping unit in the state of Mexico. "And the poor are shouldering much of burden."

Mexico's ransom market is thought to be worth in excess of $100 million a year, according to Kroll, an international risk consultant. But Mr. Rios says it's becoming more common to see demands of $1,500 and lower. Just last week, a 6-year-old boy was snatched from the neighborhood abutting Benito Juarez and his distraught parents were ordered to pay $200, a fortune for those who can't afford meat for dinner or fees for school. The boy was found dead. Criminals working in poor areas are emboldened by the examples of the professional kidnappers and the lack of convictions, say observers.

While Mexican authorities dispute Kroll's estimate of 3,000 abductions last year, claiming that kidnappings here are in the low hundreds, even they admit that at least half of the cases go unreported. Mexico City is trying to change that.

Rios supervises 120 full-time special agents in a unit recently restructured to respond to an increase in kidnappings among the less affluent. The team is modeled after Colombia's tough, no-nonsense approach, which has seen the numbers of abductions there decline of late. The new program enlists TV and radio to provide information so that poorer families know what to do when a kidnapping takes place. Also, agents move into the families' homes to help with negotiations. Rios stresses that "99 percent" of cases end with the victim returning home.

So far, however, the numbers of those turning to the police has not gone up. This, say many people here, is because of lack of faith in the system. At best, says Arcelia, Mauricio's mother, the police are inefficient and uninterested. At worst, they are working with the very kidnappers they purport to be fighting.

"This is common knowledge," she says. Still, she went to them eventually, desperate enough, she says, to believe in anything. Soon, four special agents had moved into the house - advising the family and tapping the phones, yes, but also eating from the fridge and asking for an allowance.

The first phone call came the night Mauricio was abducted. "Do you want to see your brother alive?" a stranger's voice asked Sergio, Mauricio's older brother. The kidnappers demanded 2 million pesos ($200,000) and gave detailed instructions for its delivery. Raimondo, who had been saving for 24 years, had $6,000 to his name. The family pleaded that it was impossible to collect money around Easter. They begged for proof that Mauricio was alive: "How much money had he come to repay his dad that day?" they asked - and were told. And what TV show was he watching at home the night before? Again, confirmation. They tore at their clothes in frustration.

"Only Raimondo remained reserved. He could not express his sorrow," says Arcelia. "We all cried, but he - he just looked sick. He and Mauricio had fought so much. There was so much remorse there." By the time the negotiations went into the second week, the ransom was down to $20,000. Still far too much for the Encisos.

Raimondo sold the pickup truck for $8,000 and Arcelia's mother traveled down from Michuacan with her savings. Mauricio's 18-year-old wife, Yasmin, tied the bills with rubber bands and placed them in white envelopes. A time was set for the drop, and Sergio set off with the sack of money, his cellphone to his ear as the kidnappers barked out orders. He circled the shabby Pericentro shopping mall, drove toward the crowded Satellite district, and left the car under a bridge near the big church in Lomas Verdes.

That night the phone rang. Arcelia picked it up. "Mauricio?" she whispered. It was the kidnappers. They said there had not been enough money in the sack. Arcelia, pained, says she does not know if this is true. Only her husband and eldest son know, and they're not saying. The kidnappers used rough language. Sergio took away the receiver and asked for a sign of life from his brother. The voice told him to get lost.

Days, then weeks, then months passed - and nothing. The agents eventually packed up and left. Mauricio's sister got married in a fluffy white dress. And just last month, Mauricio's son, born five months before he was kidnapped, was finally baptized. Raimondo held the child during the ceremony.

Arcelia spends her days now making papier-mâché angels with long flowing capes. She has plans to sell them in the marketplace, but meanwhile, they perch on every space around the house. The light in Mauricio's room is left on permanently. Maybe, suggests Sergio, his eyes clouding up, he will one day follow it home.

Around the corner from the Enciso's home, past two stalls selling fresh chicken and a small stand selling candy and beans, Ricardo Berber Tinoco is standing in front of the local police station. The bulky neighborhood chief shakes his head when asked about the case.

He squints and furrows his forehead and plays with his big yellow Bugs Bunny key ring. He recalls something, but the details are hazy. Maybe another department was in charge, he suggests. Accordion music is piping out from the boom box and a half dozen policemen are washing the commander's car in the drizzle. They too shake their heads.

"There are certainly many cases like that these days," the commander says and jingles his key ring. "So many. Too many, actually."

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