MEXICO CITY — As the euphoria calms this week over a prominent Mexican banker's safe release in exchange for a reported $30-million ransom, attention is turning to questions that still linger in the bizarre case.
Alfredo Harp Helu's abduction in broad daylight in March as he traveled between his home and office provoked concerns about public safety.
As his disappearance stretched into 106 days, more unsettling doubts were raised about government policies and the future of this nation's largest financial group. Harp is president and major stockholder of the financial conglomerate Banamex-Accival.
The speculation swirling around the case underscored the uncertainty arising within the private sector, which has been among this government's staunchest supporters.
The efficiency and professionalism of the kidnaping--including the immediate blindfolding and drugging of Harp--indicated that the abductors had a surprising level of sophistication.
Suspicions immediately turned to Basque terrorists allowed into the country in the 1970s as political refugees, focusing an unwelcome spotlight on that government decision and its possible consequences.
Harp's name was on a list of 150 "kidnap-able" Latin American executives found last year in a clandestine arsenal in Managua, Nicaragua, believed to belong to the Basque terrorist group ETA.
Spanish authorities believe that more than 100 ETA members have received refuge in Mexico over the last two decades and have unsuccessfully requested that some be deported.
The Spanish and Mexican governments are negotiating an extradition treaty that would include terrorist crimes.
"I would be sad if Mexican society had to discover the character of ETA criminals by suffering it themselves," Spanish Interior Minister Juan Alberto Belloch told the independent Mexican newsmagazine Proceso.
The spectacle of Harp begging for his life in a videotape and letters while his relatives and partners haggled over ransom demands with kidnapers--who originally sought three times what was paid--has undermined confidence in Banamex-Accival's management.
The close, complementary relationship between Harp and Roberto Hernandez, his old college classmate and longtime partner, has been one of the group's great strengths.
"I am ready to go back to working hard," Harp said hours after his release Tuesday. A statement from Banamex-Accival said he would return to his duties soon, without specifying a date. But some investors were skeptical.
"I can't see how he will ever work with them again," one investment adviser said.
Further, as family and business associates bargained with kidnapers, speculation arose about how much control the banker has over his reported $1 billion in assets. Most of his fortune is concentrated in his 10% interest in Banamex-Accival. He and a group of investors bought Banamex from the government two years ago.
The implication that Harp may no longer control those assets has cast a pall over privatization auctions that have been considered a major achievement of the administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
More concretely, many worry that once again the kidnapers got away.
A dozen such Mexican crimes in recent years have netted abductors more than $1 million each. The high rewards and seeming impunity for kidnapers has placed Mexico third on the list of Latin America's abduction spots, after Brazil and Colombia.
Even as Harp was released, retailing scion Angel Losada entered his second month in captivity.
"The liberation is a breather," said Cecilia Romero, a high-ranking official in the opposition National Action Party, which is closely aligned with business interests. "But it is not the end of the uncertainty that prevails nor does it bring an end to kidnapings in this country."