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Fear of Attacks Taking Toll on Many in Mexico

Rising criminality has led to an 'exile of fear.' Some of the wealthy are moving abroad. Others are hiring bodyguards or moving to safer areas.


MEXICO CITY — Antonio Aguilar is no stranger to Mexico's soaring crime, with his son and all his employees suffering attacks in recent years. Still, the singer was stunned at his younger son's reaction to a recent high-profile kidnapping in another show-business family.

"One of my children became afraid. He suggested we move to Texas," said Aguilar, a television star who sings ballads on horseback.

Aguilar talked his 29-year-old son out of the idea. But the incident is symbolic of the heavy toll crime is taking on Mexicans--and their increasingly drastic responses.

Like Aguilar's son, some wealthy Mexicans are broaching a previously unthinkable idea--moving abroad to escape crime. To be sure, few are actually packing their bags. But the notion has become so talked-about that the news weekly Milenio recently dedicated its cover to Mexico's "exile of fear."

Exile, however, is just one response to mounting fears of crime.

Less dramatic but more common is hiring guards or moving out of crime hot spots such as Mexico City. Security firms are doing a booming business: Kroll-O'Gara Co. reports 400% growth during the past four years in demand for bulletproof cars.

"In Los Angeles, New York and Detroit, you know where to avoid. That's how the criminal situation is different here--the criminals are coming to the most affluent areas," said Daniel Bell, head of the company's Mexican branch.

Crime began to spiral during Mexico's painful 1995 recession. Even though the economy has been recovering, robberies and kidnappings remain at or near record levels. In Mexico City, nearly 20,000 crimes a month are reported. The number of unreported crimes is believed to exceed that many times over.

The prominence of some victims--including the son of ranchera music star Vicente Fernandez, held for four months until his family reportedly paid a $3-million ransom in September--has fed the public fear. The sense is that even the rich and famous are no longer safe.

In recent months, several high-profile Mexicans--such as singers Paty Manterola, Ana Gabriel and Alejandra Guzman--have publicly declared they are moving to the United States to escape the threat of crime.

They are being joined by wealthy business executives and ranchers, according to executives at security firms. Although no statistics exist on how many are leaving, it is believed to be a small, if influential, group.

"They are people who simply can't adapt to a situation of this kind," said Mauricio Lulka, head of the Central Committee of the Jewish Community in Mexico.

He said three dozen of the approximately 12,000 families in Mexico's Jewish community had fled abroad, mainly to the San Diego area, to escape crime.

More common is moving to another, safer area of Mexico. That is happening to crime-weary residents in Puebla, according to Carlos Ortiz, director of the southern city's main business organization.

"There have been five business executives kidnapped in Puebla in the past few months. People think the authorities are not focusing on getting maximum sentences" for kidnappers, Ortiz said. "I could tell you of seven families who have left and seven more who are thinking of going."

Some fear that the panicked reaction to crime is becoming dangerous itself.

Alejandro Gertz, the Mexico City police chief, recently called for a crackdown on the 3,000 security companies that have popped up in recent years in the city, employing 30,000 guards.

"There are too many armed people, with gun permits or without them, who have to be under very strict control," he said.

And a recent poll by the Mexico City daily Reforma of 799 city residents found that 12% had bought a firearm because of rising crime.

Aguilar, the singer, says he knows wealthy bankers and ranchers who have moved their families abroad to escape the threat of attack.

Aguilar shares their fear. His employees have been mugged in different incidents, and his son was held for several hours by criminals who robbed him.

These days, Aguilar travels around Mexico City accompanied by five bodyguards. But he told his family that he couldn't abandon the country.

"I said, 'No, we'll get lots of vigilance, and they won't kidnap you.' "


Greg Brosnan in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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