Parenting in Mexico: Families' fear tested in 'virtual kidnappings'

Parenting in Mexico in an environment where kidnapping and extortion are everyday experiences can be a nightmare. Up to 50,000 people have been killed in the last six years in the nation's fight against drug trafficking. Raising children in an environment of fear, parents are now being forced to reckon with the latest scheme, known as "virtual kidnapping."

AP Photo/Ricardo Lopez
Parents are constantly forced to be alert to kidnappings and extortion throughout Mexico. Families wait outside the Luis Arnoldo Nunez elementary school for evening classes to start in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 27, 2008. A sign appeared Nov. 12 on the front door of the Elena Garro kindergarten in the city, demanding, "Either give us your bonuses, or we will start to kidnap the children."

The phone rings at 11 p.m., jolting a father from his slumber. It is among the most dreaded moments of any parent's life.

But in Mexico, parents face more fearsome prospects.

“Hello?” my friend's father said into the receiver on a recent evening, as it dawned on him in a panic that his moment had arrived.

“Papi, they have me,” were the words he heard back. His sweet daughter.

Without thinking twice, he started to give what was demanded of him, including cell phone numbers of the family members. It was not until moments later that his wife gained calm and dialed her daughter's cell phone.

“What's up?” my friend asked of her mother, the din of a party just getting underway in the background.

Virtual kidnapping. It's one of the newer threats finding its way into the lives of ordinary Mexicans.

The voice, “Papi, they have me,” was not my friend's voice, but a recording. Criminals use these generic messages, chancing that at least some panicked Mexicans will deposit money or at least give out additional information, like private cell phone numbers, so that a more targeted scheme can be developed for the future. No one knows for sure who they are, if they are tied to drug traffickers, networks run out of the nation's jails, or just common criminals taking advantage of an environment of fear, as 50,000 have been killed in the nation's fight against drug trafficking in the past six years.

In many ways it's distinctly Mexican in the 21st century. In another time or place, without kidnapping and extortion so widespread, a father might pause. “Excuse me?” he might say, and when “Papi, they have me” is repeated, he might realize, “Who is this? This isn't my daughter's voice.”

I ran into my friend at a cafe the day after her family's ordeal. I asked her how they knew that the phone number they were dialing was that of a father with a daughter who could conceivably be kidnapped. "It's random," she says. "There is a 50-50 chance."

And in that way the whole scheme is also distinctly Mexican: Only in a country with generations of  sky-high fertility rates can a band of criminals play the odds so confidently that a random person answering a phone actually has a daughter.

I came home and told the woman who takes care of my own daughter about it. She was hardly surprised. In fact, she said a sister-in-law had just received a call from a nephew in the US.

“Aunt, I lost my job and need money to get back to Mexico,” he told her. And without thinking twice, she started borrowing money from other family members to wire into the account given to her over the phone. It was not until a daughter wised up that they stepped back and asked, "Is this extortion?” And indeed, the nephew had never called and has no intentions of returning home. (And again, such a scam only works in a country in which almost everyone has a cousin, son, or nephew toiling in the US).

Extortion is one of the crimes in Mexico that has skyrocketed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office and dispatched troops to fight drug trafficking. And, so far it seems, very little is being done about it, at least as underlined by my friend's experience.

That very night she called the program established by the attorney general's office to help extortion victims and was told to, in so many words, “carry on with your life.”

“There is really very little we can do here,” said the policeman who picked up the line at the 800-number provided, she says. The phone number from where the call was made was unregistered, “just as if the phone call had never happened,” he added.

But it did happen, and has happened, to countless other parents who, already naturally worried about their children out and about at night, have one more thing to make for a restless evening.

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