MEXICO CITY — In the past year, Maria Isabel Miranda, a former teacher who used to spend free time reading and listening to music, has staked out homes in disguise, escaped from gunpoint, and plastered the faces of those who she believed kidnapped her son last July on billboards across Mexico City. The risks she takes, which she says are driven by police apathy, have helped lead to the capture and arrest of four of the alleged kidnappers, but not to the remains of her son, Hugo Alberto Wallace.
"Some of my friends and even family have told me to give up, that I'm putting myself in too much danger," says Ms. Miranda, who has received two dozen death threats and now has two full-time body guards. "But I won't stop until I find him. Part of me is out there."
In many ways, her tale is that of a mother whose loss has been channeled into a quest for answers and justice. But in a country plagued by kidnappings – inching by one estimate in front of Colombia for the first time last year – the lengths she has gone represent a widespread lack of faith in law enforcement among the population. And now she has become a high-profile case for anticrime advocates who are seeking to reverse decades of silence on the part of victims.
"This woman did more than the police. But unfortunately, she's not the only one," says José Antonio Ortega, the head of the Citizen's Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice. "People are afraid that the police won't do anything, or worse, that they are involved."
Kidnapping has stubbornly clung to the Mexican landscape for 30 years. But a problem that was once the domain of high- powered executives and their wealthy families has reached all facets of society. Mr. Ortega says it is not uncommon to see ransom demands of $500 today – a relatively small amount, but something a poorer victim's family may not be able to afford.
Figures for kidnapping vary widely and are unreliable because so many families do not approach the police, says Emma Campos-Redman, Americas analyst at the business security firm Control Risks in London. "There is a huge problem of underreporting due to people's lack of trust in the police forces and fear of retaliation, or of [the police's] potential involvement with kidnapping groups," she says.
Not included in federal numbers are kidnappings of the more common "express" variety, when strangers are randomly chosen to empty out their bank accounts at an ATM. Maria Elena Morera, the president of Mexico United Against Crime, estimates that about 500 kidnappings occur nationwide each year, and that for every three, at least one goes unreported.
Miranda says she understands why. Her family's ordeal began July 11, 2005, when her son went to the movies on a blind date – set up by an acquaintance from whom he had bought property four years earlier – and never returned. When Miranda contacted the police the next day, she says she was met with indifference.
So the family launched its own investigation, a journey that has certainly been treacherous and at times verged on the surreal as it has captured the nation's attention. "People have contacted me about writing a book, or making a movie, and a television series," she says. "I don't have time."
Her first move was to call her son's cellphone company to track down his last whereabouts. She and eight family members scoured the area, found his car, and eventually, through witnesses, found the house where Mr. Wallace was initially taken, she says. By the time they got there, the house was empty but they stalked it anyway, for eight days and nights, learning everything they could from neighbors about the residents.
When she first received a letter in the mail a month after her son disappeared requesting $950,000, she reported it to the police. Within two weeks, she received another letter chiding her for approaching authorities, and says she knew then there was collusion within the department. "From then, we kept the police out of it," she says.
Ms. Morera says that Miranda's actions may undermine the fight many anticrime advocates are waging. "It's admirable, but she is taking a lot of risks, and we have to demand that authorities do their jobs," she says. "It's the only way to break this circle."
Miranda, for example, has given up her job and so has her brother, a lawyer – something that only a fraction of families would be able to do.
José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, Mexico's deputy attorney general for special investigation into organized crime, says that perceptions of widespread corruption in the justice system are one reason that, by some estimates, some 80 percent of Mexicans do not report crime. But, he says, authorities have been combating corruption, and citizens have to start trusting the system. "The authorities have been working very hard, above all the federal ones, and now it is time for the people to report crimes. If people don't report, the authorities can't take action."
But Miranda says she had to take matters into her own hands. She has amassed tips, finding names, phone numbers, and addresses of those she believed are involved. She led police to her son's date last year, who confessed to seeing Wallace killed but has not said where his remains are.
When Miranda tracked down another alleged conspirator, he pulled a gun on her. But her brother, who rarely leaves her side, tackled him and a passing police car arrested him. With two arrests, she began a billboard campaign to publicize images of those she believed to be involved, amassing more tips, which led to two more arrests. The last billboard she put up, on July 11, the one-year anniversary of her son's disappearance, was of Wallace – a man who she says loved motorcycles and the Dallas Cowboys, and talked with his mother six times a day.
Most kidnappings do not end in murder, but Ortega's statistics show that violence against kidnapping victims has grown, especially in the capital, where 24 victims were killed by their captors in 2005, up from 15 the year before.
Miranda says dozens of families have since contacted her, sometimes when a relative first disappears. Often she tells them to call federal investigators. Sometimes they ask for advice on negotiating or about putting up billboards, she says.
The aggressive tactics are a new affront to the kidnapping business, she says, one that she knows puts her in danger."The whole industry sees you as an enemy," she says. "No one [in Mexico] does anything, or says anything. They see you as a threat, showing the way for others in similar situations."