Kidnapping of US antikidnapping consultant rattles Mexico

Felix Batista, who has negotiated the release of scores of victims in Latin America, was nabbed Dec. 10, authorities reported.

In a troubling sign of the growing sophistication and daring of kidnapping gangs in Mexico, gunmen have abducted an American antikidnapping expert in the northern state of Coahuila.

Felix Batista, a consultant who has negotiated the release of scores of victims throughout Latin America, was reportedly on business, offering ransom advice in the city of Saltillo, when he was grabbed from the sidewalk outside a restaurant.

Kidnapping has long plagued Mexico. On Monday, the country's human rights office released a report showing that between 2001 and 2008, there were 5,140 reported kidnappings. But up to 3 of 4 cases goes unreported, as Mexicans fear that authorities are, at best, unable to solve the problem, and at worst, part of it. Those who can afford it often turn to private security. Yet the fact that a foreign kidnapping expert could fall victim is a sign to many Mexicans that security is as elusive as ever today.

Mr. Batista's abduction, which authorities said happened Dec. 10, comes as officials confirmed discovery of the body of a daughter of a former sports commissioner who disappeared in September 2007.

Mexicans have responded with outrage to kidnapping and violence that has spiraled out of control as Mexican President Felipe Calderón has dispatched troops and authorities to stem drug-related violence. This year, the number of deaths related to drug violence has doubled from last year, to more than 5,300. Earlier this year, more than 100,000 marched across Mexico City after the abducted teenage son of another wealthy businessman was found dead in the trunk of a car.

Crime is the top concern of Mexicans. In a survey earlier this year by the polling firm Buendia & Laredo, 80 percent of respondents say they consider crime "very serious," up from 60 percent two years ago. A plurality also said that Mexico is losing the battle against drug-related violence.

Some politicians have responded by calling to reinstate the death penalty for kidnappers who kill their abductees. Earlier this year, Mr. Calderón held a meeting with governors to release a plan to stem kidnapping, including special prisons for kidnappers and rooting out police who collude with them.

But many security experts do not see an overall strategy. "It's mostly reactive to the pressures from the business community and families whose kids have been abducted," says Edgardo Buscaglia, a visiting professor of law and economics at the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology. "It's not part of an overall protocol to make sure you prevent corruption within the police."

In a separate report released Monday, the US Justice Department said that Mexican traffickers, partnering with smuggling groups and networks in the US, have become the country's biggest organized crime menace.

"Mexican drug-trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States," says the report. "The influence of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations over domestic drug trafficking is unrivaled."

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