Mexico City's 'mass kidnapping' highlights countrywide rise in abductions

On average 130 people per month have been reported kidnapped this year, compared to 40 per month in 2004. Some question if Mexico's inability to prosecute crimes is fueling the problem.

Kidnapping is the crime that causes the greatest fear in Mexico.

Even a slight uptick in abductions can dramatically alter how safe people say they feel, according to a new study by a Mexico City think tank, CIDAC. And kidnapping is on the rise.

Last month, 12 people disappeared from an after-hours bar just one block from the monuments and skyscrapers of Mexico City's busy Reforma Avenue. Twelve days have passed with no word of their whereabouts, and the capital’s chief prosecutor has so far declined to name suspects or possible motives.

Adding to Mexicans' concerns is that the monthly average of reported abductions grew 132 percent between 2006 and 2012, according to México Evalúa, a Mexico City-based think tank. So far this year, reported kidnappings are averaging 130 per month, up from 109 per month last year and a monthly average of fewer than 40 in 2004. 

“I think it’s a blunt signal that insecurity continues to be a serious problem in Mexico,” says Edna Jaime, México Evalúa executive director. “The fact that something like this occurs, I think it ought to be an alert that the city is not protected.”

Each time the number of reported abductions per 100,000 people rises by 10, the perception of insecurity jumps 5 percent, according to the CIDAC report, “Eight Crimes First.”

Mexico City has managed to maintain its distance from the mass kidnappings, disappearances, and murders that have plagued other regions of the country after the previous government of Felipe Calderón launched an offensive against organized crime. It did so by installing hundreds of security cameras, creating a high-tech headquarters for monitoring security citywide, and by managing one of the world’s largest city police forces.

Is the bubble bursting?

Some fear that the disappearance of the 12 people could signal a popping of the security bubble that has managed to keep Mexico City out of the more gruesome headlines. But kidnapping has been an ongoing problem, as rising statistics show, and many say the larger issue is the government’s inability to investigate and prosecute crimes.

“Instead of criminal intelligence, what you see is a bureaucratic procedure that doesn’t succeed at putting together sufficient evidence to prove the suspect’s culpability before a judge,” according to the CIDAC report. “That’s without mentioning the possibility that one or all of the authorities involved are colluding or, simply, end up being incompetent.”

Authorities currently don't have a mandate to allocate resources according to the seriousness of a crime, according to the CIDAC report, and as a result, the saturated system is incapable of dealing effectively with serious cases. CIDAC recommends the government prioritize how it investigates and prosecutes crimes.

Mass kidnapping

It's not uncommon for wealthy families to hire their own investigators to look into kidnapping crimes. Two high-profile kidnappings in 2005 and 2008 saw the families deliver suspects identified in their private investigations to the police's doorstep. 

The case of the 12 people reported kidnapped outside a bar known as Heaven After grabbed headlines only after family members blocked a major road in protest. It took investigators several days to piece together that the missing persons reports were connected. (Police initially believed there were 11 victims, but a 12th missing person was added to the list this week.)

Meanwhile, investigators lost track of a key witness for several days, a man who said he escaped the bar through the roof. The man told police his version when he accompanied relatives of one of the missing to file a report, but apparently gave a false name and false address, according to Chief Prosecutor Rodolfo Rios. Mexico City's Milenio newspaper reported today that the man was finally found by police again.

Most of the missing are from a tough neighborhood known as Tepito, notorious for the contraband sold and trafficked there. The Associated Press reported that the fathers of two of the missing young men are suspected former Tepito crime bosses doing time in prison. 

"We're not going to victimize, nor criminalize anyone for their family situation or their record," Mr. Rios said in a June 1 press conference.

Another case involving the nightclub has come to light, as well. Nearly two years ago a man was kidnapped from the same spot, CNNMexico reports.  

Three people have been detained in the current case. 

Nationwide, more than 26,000 people have vanished over the past six years, often at the hand of organized crime, and sometimes by corrupt authorities, according to the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). Observers worry that the number of missing persons could be much higher, given how often crimes aren’t reported to the police. Civil organizations estimate that between 60 percent and 90 percent of kidnappings go unreported in Mexico.

What’s known as secuestro in Mexico is usually followed by a call for ransom, but an untold number of those reported kidnapped never reappear. Instead, they slip into the tally of Mexico’s “disappeared.” 

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