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Her son kidnapped, a Mexican mother turns vocal sleuth

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 2006


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.

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"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."