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In Mexico, a bounty on every head

Kidnapping for money is rife -- and the rich aren't the only targets. Gripped with fear, the public raises an outcry.

September 01, 2008|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Perhaps nothing reveals this country's kidnapping dread better than one product now on offer from a Mexican company: a tiny transmitter that is implanted under the skin to beam the person's whereabouts to a satellite.

Employing more conventional safeguards, businessmen travel with bodyguards, and children in tony neighborhoods attend classes behind Ft. Knox-like security. The insurance industry has pondered whether to offer kidnapping protection.

Although the country's drug violence may make headlines abroad, Mexicans are far more preoccupied with its kidnapping problem, among the world's worst. Its frequency and variety, including "express" and "virtual" kidnappings, have made it a kind of national plague, and one with unusual political resonance.

It has prompted calls to reinstate the death penalty for such cases and marches nationwide Saturday that drew massive crowds. The growing outcry spurred political leaders to hurriedly convene in the National Palace late last month to approve a high-profile plan against organized crime. A number of the provisions targeted abductions, including a request for more federal prisons, with areas reserved for kidnappers.

The abduction anxieties run across a surprisingly wide swath of society. There have been cases in which working-class families were ordered to pay as little as $500 to get a relative back.

A report by the daily Milenio newspaper said a review of federal statistics showed that only 1 in 8 kidnapping victims was a business executive. About half were in the middle class or below, the newspaper reported.

"They call it an elitist crime because only the rich get kidnapped, but that's not true. They'll kidnap you for $1,000 or $2,000," said Alfredo Neme Martinez, who heads a national association of wholesale merchants.

The kidnapping furor has gripped the country since the death early last month of 14-year-old Fernando Marti. The youth was found dead in Mexico City after his wealthy family, founders of a chain of sporting goods stores, reportedly paid kidnappers millions of dollars for his release.

The case has provoked public outrage by seeming to crystallize the nation's broader problems of crime and corruption, and the failure of successive governments to deal with them. Worse, the abduction may have involved police, stoking a long-held suspicion here that law enforcement officers are more a problem than a cure.

Then, in another high-profile case, the former head of Mexico's sports commission and his wife went public last week with news that their teenage daughter was kidnapped nearly a year ago and still missing, after the captors abruptly dropped contact.

"Just return my daughter to me and you will have your reward," the mother, Silvia Escalera, pleaded before television cameras.

The victim, Silvia Vargas Escalera, was 18 when she disappeared last September. The family printed an 800 number and a picture of the girl, smiling and wearing a Coke T-shirt, on a five-story banner and hung it on a building near the busy Paseo de la Reforma, the capital's central boulevard.

For all the concern over kidnapping, it is unclear how often it occurs. According to official statistics, about 65 people are kidnapped each month, or about two a day. That figure is up 9.1% from last year.

But the actual kidnapping tally is probably far higher: Many families avoid going to the police because they don't trust them. A crime institute said recently that there were probably more than 500 kidnappings a month.

They come in a wide variety. There are traditional abductions for ransom. "Express" kidnappings may last a couple of hours. They are often glorified muggings, with the victim ordered to withdraw money from an ATM or buy goods for the captors to win release.

There are even "virtual" kidnappings, in which no one is taken. A caller pretends to have a captive in hopes of getting the person's loved ones to make a hasty payoff before they try to confirm the claim.

Authorities contend that the rise in kidnappings is a sign that their crackdown on drug traffickers is working. According to this view, which is shared by a number of analysts, the government campaign has made it more difficult to smuggle drugs into the United States, prompting trafficking gangs in places such as Tijuana to find other sources of income, such as kidnapping.

The result, officials say, is that kidnapping has become increasingly competitive.

Abductions appear to be increasingly fatal for captives. At least 60 have been killed since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006, said Laura Elena Herrejon, who heads an anti-crime group in Mexico City.

Although drug violence in Mexico has been staggering, with more than 2,600 people reported killed this year, many residents brush it off as largely a battle among rival gangs. Kidnapping, though, hits families at a personal level and echoes at a societal one.

The Garcia family's turn came in December, when Gilberto Garcia was abducted

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