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Head of Mexico Kidnapping Inquiry Slain

The killing adds to fears of rising crime. Trust in the authorities to combat it is low.

June 18, 2004|Marla Dickerson and Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — A top police official investigating a brazen string of kidnappings here was shot to death, authorities said Thursday, the latest victim in a spasm of violence that has outraged residents and thrust the issue of law and order into the political spotlight.

Jose Fernando Jimenez Lecona, who headed a high-risk crimes unit in the state of Mexico, was gunned down late Wednesday by two unknown assailants outside his home north of Mexico City, the capital. Authorities said that Jimenez's killers lay in wait and that at least one opened fire with a .45-caliber handgun as the veteran investigator stepped out of his van.

Officials theorized that Jimenez was killed by someone looking to put an end to his work, which included an investigation of a high-profile kidnap-slaying of two brothers last month. Vicente and Sebastian Gutierrez Moreno were shot execution style and their bodies tossed into a trash bin after their family paid captors the equivalent of about $450,000.

Jimenez, 49, was with the special unit for 20 years and was involved with hundreds of investigations and with the breakup of more than 80 kidnapping gangs, according to the state prosecutor's office.

News of the assassination has added to public perceptions that crime is spiraling out of control in Mexico, and that government and law enforcement are either complicit in the crimes or powerless to stop them.

The government estimates that as many as 1,250 people were kidnapped in the country last year, while some private security experts put the number at more than twice that. Trust in the police is so low that many cases go unreported, in large part out of fear that some officers are in league with the captors.

There is "an extraordinary crisis of confidence," said Ernesto Lopez Portillo, director of the Institute for Security and Democracy in Mexico City. "The institutions say, 'We are working,' and the people on their part say, 'We don't see results.' "

Kidnapping is nothing new in Mexico. Small-time hoodlums and sophisticated criminal gangs alike have found it a quick way to make money. So-called express kidnappings were common a few years ago, with criminals imprisoning victims just long enough to drain their bank accounts by forcing them to make repeated ATM withdrawals.

But security experts say kidnappers are growing more greedy and violent, demanding larger ransoms and assaulting and killing their victims if families fail to pay. In a nation besieged by violent crime, kidnapping instills a special kind of fear because it is an attack on the most trusted and cherished of institutions: the family.

"It's a different kind of crime from all the rest where the people are in a state of suspended death," said Maria Elena Morera, president of the citizens group Mexicans United Against Crime. "It's a type of crime that deprives not just one person's freedom, it deprives the liberty of the family and their friends."

Morera's group is organizing an anti-kidnapping demonstration June 27 that is expected to draw thousands of residents to the capital demanding that authorities do something to end the terror.

To date, some public officials have spent more time playing down the problem than outlining a strategy to combat it. A report by New York-based security firm Kroll Inc. set off a controversy this month when it ranked Mexico as the No. 2 nation for kidnapping, with an estimated 3,000 cases last year. The company said Mexico ranked behind only Colombia, which is embroiled in a civil war.

Mexican law enforcement officials quickly declared that Kroll's numbers were overstated, and some legislators here suggested that such private security firms were part of the problem. Many families afraid to go to the police have hired private companies to gain the release of their loved ones. Some of these companies dissuade their clients from telling authorities, increasing the number of underreported crimes.

Politicians looking to the 2006 national elections have jumped into the fray. Mexico's populist mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whose administration has been rocked by a series of corruption scandals, has accused his political enemies of exaggerating the kidnapping threat to make him look bad.

Presidential hopeful Jorge Hank Rohn, an Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate from Tijuana, is already running television commercials stressing a law-and-order platform.

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