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New fear rises in Tijuana

Violent kidnappings become commonplace as a cash-starved drug cartel wrings profits from the loved ones of businessmen.

October 25, 2006|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

Tijuana — ONE sunny morning last year, a middle-aged businessman was turning off the Via Rapida toward work when a convoy of black vehicles slipped behind his car. They caught up with him in his office parking lot and a dozen heavily armed men spilled out, threw him in a van and sped off into the gritty sprawl.

Within minutes, his family received the ransom demand -- $1 million.

A week later, hands trembling, the businessman's brother said the family still didn't have the money.

"It looks like you don't love your own flesh and blood," sneered the kidnapper he spoke to over a cellphone walkie-talkie.

Ankles bound, hands cuffed so that his palms were clasped as if in prayer, the businessman was by now stuck on a smelly sofa in a safe house, whispering repetitions of Our Fathers and Hail Marys while his captors smoked marijuana and giggled at telenovelas.

"How can you say I don't love him. Of course we love him," the businessman's brother told the kidnapper, according to a tape recording he made of the conversation.

"You're playing games," the voice said. "If you don't hurry, I'm going to kill him and throw his body on your doorstep."

The businessman's abduction marked another episode in a two-year crime wave that has turned this border city into one of the kidnapping capitals of the world.

The targets, typically middle- and upper-class businessmen or their sons, often are snatched in broad daylight by organized crime rings masquerading as commando-style federal police squads. It happens outside their homes and on busy streets. One man was grabbed as he left a circus with his kids.

American tourists are rarely targets, so the kidnappings don't get much attention across the border. They usually aren't reported to police, many of whom are working with the criminal rings, according to federal and state authorities. Estimates of the number of kidnappings this year in the Tijuana area range from 77 to 120, according to business groups, civic leaders and private security firms. The year before, they say, there were 60.

Tijuana may now have the most kidnappings in the world outside of the Middle East, said Thomas Clayton, chairman of Clayton Consultants Inc., a global private security firm. "Tijuana is going crazy," Clayton said.

About two years ago, the tide of crime reached into the fashionable Zona Rio district and the nearby hillside streets lined with mini-mansions. Black-clad assailants toting AK-47s began snatching people from restaurants and bars. In one notorious case, assailants dragged a screaming man off the front staircase of the ritzy Club Campestre.

Now rarely a day passes without a brazen kidnapping or murder making headlines. On major thoroughfares, billboards show photos of kidnap victims and plead for help finding them. In a recent newspaper survey, nearly one-third of respondents said a friend or relative had been kidnapped. Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon recently said 10 friends of his have been kidnapped. Residents keep track of the toll the way like Southern Californians watch wildfires burn toward their homes.

The deteriorating situation has prompted Tijuana Bishop Rafael Romo Munoz and civic leaders to call for the Mexican military to patrol the streets.

Meanwhile, hundreds of families, some owners of landmark businesses and institutions, have fled across the border to live in upscale neighborhoods in San Diego County. Many of the exiles, who include some threatened policemen, return to Tijuana only under armed escort. Every day, their bodyguards wait for them at the border.

"Fear industries" commonplace in other crime-ridden cities across Latin America now thrive in Tijuana. Bodyguards shadow children going to elementary schools. Insurance companies specializing in kidnapping policies hire firms such as Clayton's to conduct ransom negotiations. A paramilitary group headed by a former Mexican general has offered, for a price, to wage war on organized crime on behalf of the families.

Other Mexican cities have suffered waves of kidnappings -- most notably Mexico City in the 1990s. But Tijuana's kidnapping spree is uniquely brutal because violent drug cartel members are carrying out the crimes, experts say. Victims in Tijuana are more likely to be killed, even if their ransoms are paid.

"It's a very dangerous situation," said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "What's disturbing about what's happening in Tijuana is how organized and how precise these operations are. These are pros who have well-funded plans and organizations -- essentially criminal syndicates that are very, very sophisticated."

This summer, the kidnapping rate reached one per day, and some business and civic leaders, typically loath to perpetuate Tijuana's violent reputation, began encouraging people to leave.

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