Reporting from Mexico City — Felix Perez Rocha, a plastic surgeon, had finished a liposuction and was starting another procedure when gunmen burst into his operating room and hauled the terrified doctor away.
The kidnapping at a high-end clinic in the affluent business hub of Monterrey immediately suggested one of the more cinematic chapters of drug-trafficking lore. A narco kingpin forcing a surgeon to alter his looks and help him evade the law? It has happened before.
But on Friday, state prosecutors in Monterrey said it appeared that Perez's patient was the target, not the doctor. A woman whom authorities identified as Elida Ordaz, 29, a U.S. citizen from Mission, Texas, had undergone the fat-removal procedure an hour or so before the four gunmen stormed the hospital. They demanded that she be turned over to them. When hospital officials refused — she had already left — they seized the doctor.
"We understand that the principal objective … was the lady," Nuevo Leon state Atty. Gen. Alejandro Garza told reporters.
It was not clear why they were after her, but she is now under police protection, Garza said. He said he had asked the FBI to join the investigation and that, as far as he knew, she had no criminal record.
The henchmen of a trafficker will often grab relatives of their chief's rivals, or sometimes sequester a woman who catches the boss' fancy.
Perez, who was abducted about 1:30 p.m. Thursday, was released later that night. On Friday, a woman who answered the telephone at the doctor's home identified herself as Perez's wife and reported her husband "safe and sound," but away. Sources in the prosecutor's office said they believed he had left the country, which the doctor's office later confirmed.
"We hear a lot about attempts to blackmail doctors, doctors kidnapped, but no one ever files a report," an official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.
Monterrey, where Perez worked at the prestigious downtown Specialists Medical Building, was until recently one of Mexico's safest cities. But paramilitary-style Zeta gang members are battling their onetime ally, the Gulf cartel, for control, plunging the wealthy economic center into violent chaos.
Friday marked the end to another bloody week in Mexico, including the killing of three people in a funeral home in Ciudad Juarez who were lined up against a wall and shot to death. Nine others were killed elsewhere in the state of Chihuahua, including four people tied to a fence. In addition, a prominent politician's nephew was slain, also in Ciudad Juarez.
On Friday, public security officials said they had captured five men, including one suspected of involvement in a July 15 car bombing in Ciudad Juarez that killed a police officer and three other people and marked an escalation in cartel tactics.
The National Human Rights Commission, meanwhile, announced its findings in an investigation of the killing of two promising engineering students shot outside their university in Monterrey during a gun battle between the army and gunmen in March. The commission found that the students had been beaten after they were shot and that the scene had been tampered with to make it appear the pair were armed. The army had initially portrayed the dead students as gunmen, until the families came forward and protested.
It is the second high-profile human rights case this year in which the commission found that soldiers had tampered with the scene. In the other incident, two children were killed in what the army initially sought to portray as crossfire.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.