Kidnapping thrives in Mexico

Congress is slated to debate a law that would crack down on "express kidnappings."

When Héctor Pineda Velázquez was kidnapped from his ranch in Guerrero state and held by masked captors for more than a month, his family didn't notify the press or ask authorities to help secure his release. They paid an undisclosed ransom.

That may seem strange, considering Mr. Pineda is a federal congressman.

"Everything was arranged by my family, in particular, my son," a disheveled and distraught Pineda told reporters outside his home in Coyuca de Catalán on Sept. 6, the day he was released.

After the string of highly publicized child-abduction cases this summer, Americans might find it hard to imagine that a kidnapped high-level Mexican official barely makes the news here – and receives no official help.

But in Mexico, a kidnapping occurs every six hours on average. Mexico is now second only to war-torn Colombia in the number of annual kidnappings. While few victims are killed, few perpetrators in this thriving multimillion-dollar industry are ever caught.

"In the US, the great majority of the kidnapping cases are solved," says Walter Farrer, the Mexico operations chief at the security firm Pinkerton and Burns International. "Here, it's a business, and as awful as it sounds, it is treated as a transaction."

And business is up. The Mexican business association, Coparmex, which tracks kidnapping, lists 331 reported cases so far this year, compared to 221 in all of 2001. The actual figure, however, is estimated to be three or four times higher. According to various studies, fewer than a third of families here ever report a kidnapping, apparently out of fear that Mexico's corrupt and inefficient police are either involved in the crime or will botch any rescue effort.

Moreover, the common "express kidnap" – in which a victim is briefly abducted, forced to withdraw money from ATMs, and then released – is considered violent robbery under Mexican law. Government statistics indicate there are more than 10 express kidnaps a day here – or about 4,000 a year.

Mexico's abduction problem has spawned a billion-dollar-a-year private security industry, which provides rich families and big businesses with bodyguards, armored cars, prevention training, and kidnap negotiators. Wealthy families have been known to pay as much as $30 million in ransom, though Mr. Farrer and others say the average asking price is around $280,000 and the final payment usually negotiated to about $19,000.

Another new trend is the "virtual kidnap": gangs go for young professionals driving expensive cars, and usually negotiate their ransoms and releases within about 36 hours. "They go for volume and speed to reduce the risk," says Farrer. "Often, they don't even steal the car, which would be easier to trace."

The growing number of kidnappings has yielded new products catering to kidnap fears. Volkswagen has introduced an armored version of its Passat sedan to the Mexican market. Advertisements show a mock abduction attempt foiled by the bullet- and flame-proof car.

Victims of a wave of kidnappings in the 1990s in Cuernavaca, in central Morelos state, say the trauma shredded the fabric of their affluent community.

"I would say about 80 or 90 percent of the 'kidnappable' people here were kidnapped," says student Gerardo Cortina, who was held for 15 days after armed men nabbed him as he was leaving his university one evening. "We all asked ourselves, 'Who's next?' "

Many victims simply packed up with their families and left Mexico. "Anna," who didn't want her real name used, moved with her family from Cuernavaca to Dallas after armed men broke into their home in 1995 and kidnapped her for 30 hours.

She recently returned to Mexico after giving birth to a son. "Now that I am a parent, I can't imagine what my parents went through," she says. Seven years later, "we still call each other every 30 minutes to check everyone is OK."

Though kidnap victims in the US are more likely to be killed, Mexico's highly organized kidnap gangs usually threaten to injure their victims if families don't raise ransoms quickly. Some are known for sending body parts, often a finger or an ear, to show they're serious.

"I'm still filled with fear," says Pedro Fletes, whose captors threatened to cut off his finger when he was kidnapped last year in Mexico City. Mr. Fletes recently started an organization offering counseling for victims and their families, and meeting with the government to help track kidnap gangs. "I'm adamant that someone has to do something," he says.

Fletes isn't the only private citizen who has taken it upon himself to address Mexico's kidnap problem. Other more secretive groups track kidnap cases, meet privately with trusted government officials, and provide various forms of assistance to families when a loved one is taken.

Alberto, a businessman and member of one such group who wouldn't be identified by his full name, says kidnapping is no longer just a problem for the rich. "We're seeing more cases in small villages where a shop owner is kidnapped for somewhere around 5,000 to 10,000 pesos [about $500 to $1,000]," he says.

Mexico's government insists it is taking action. On Saturday, the justice department announced the sentencing of a jeweler-turned-kidnapper known as "the colonel" to 18 years in prison, along with five of his associates. Congress will soon consider legislation to stiffen penalties on express kidnaps. And the newly formed Federal Investigation Agency, a force similar to the FBI, has rescued 133 kidnap victims in less than two years, and nabbed more than 80 members of kidnap gangs. Last week, federal police arrested 13 members of a kidnap gang known as "the Ranchers" in an operation in central Puebla state, rescuing a 63-year-old victim.

But critics say dozens of more dangerous groups are still operating, and it's usually low-level worker bees, not kidnap masterminds, who get caught.

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