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A kidnapping mystery in Mexico City

The disappearance of 11 young people, purportedly from a Zona Rosa bar, causes concern about whether the capital can remain relatively immune from violence gripping other parts of the country.

May 31, 2013|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • Pictures of some of the missing youths are posted in the entrance of the Zona Rosa bar from which they purportedly disappeard.
Pictures of some of the missing youths are posted in the entrance of the Zona… (Eduardo Verdugo, AP )

MEXICO CITY — The Mexican capital has managed to avoid the kind of gangland violence that has gripped many other parts of the country in recent years. But the mysterious disappearance of 11 young people from a bar this week is raising new fear about the city's ability to remain relatively immune from the trouble.

The disappearance of the patrons in the Zona Rosa, a nightclub-packed neighborhood just blocks from the U.S. Embassy, has made national headlines and dominated TV news here.

As of Friday, however, it was not clear what happened to them. Were the missing really whisked away by armed, masked men in SUVs?

That is the version of events promulgated by parents and other family members who blocked streets and gathered in Mexico City's central square this week to raise awareness of their loved ones' plight. But city officials so far say they have been unable to corroborate the story.

If true, it would prove to be a rare occurrence in the capital of what Mexicans call a levanton, a mass kidnapping, often perpetrated by criminals pretending to be police, that is all too common in those Mexican states overrun by drug cartel violence.

It would also be another high-profile blow to Mexico City's reputation as a relatively safe haven: On May 9, Malcolm X's grandson, Malcolm Shabazz, was slain in a nightclub near Plaza Garibaldi, the mariachi gathering spot popular with tourists.

Prosecutors say the missing are four young women, six young men and a 16-year-old boy. Family members say that the 11 were partying in the bar about 10 a.m. Sunday, when they were encouraged to step outside by the bar's workers, who told them that the police had arrived.

From there, the families believe, the young people were stuffed into SUVs by masked men.

The family members apparently learned this version of events from a patron who escaped to the roof and claims to have seen the armed men abducting the victims. Edmundo Garrido, a Mexico City deputy prosecutor, said in a radio interview Friday that investigators had a "preliminary contact" with the witness but were now searching for him.

"We have the name, we're looking, we haven't found him at his house," Garrido said.

Both local and federal officials insisted that no police action was planned for the area at the time of the reported disappearance.

As a decade ago, the Zona Rosa was one of the city's preeminent neighborhoods. It has slipped recently, acquiring a reputation for late-night drug deals, but is not considered one of the city's roughest areas.

Most of the victims, however, hail from Tepito, a neighborhood notorious for harboring illicit drug and piracy rings. The newspaper El Universal reported Friday that the fathers of two of the missing youths are serving sentences for running a Tepito extortion and drug-dealing gang. An official with the prosecutor's office would not confirm or deny the report when contacted Friday by The Times.

Jesus Rodriguez Almeida, head of the city's public security ministry, told reporters Thursday that officials hadn't been aware of the disappearance until midweek, when the family members blocked a road in protest.

Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said in a news conference Thursday that neither the manner nor the location of the disappearance had been corroborated by evidence officials had gathered thus far.

Investigators raided the bar Thursday night. Garrido said they recovered six cameras and were reviewing video from these and other security cameras outside.

Prosecutors have met at least twice with family members but had little news to share with them.

"Nothing is known," Julieta Gonzalez, the mother of one of the missing youths, said in a television interview after one such meeting Thursday. "They told us that it wasn't the police."

richard.fausset@latimes.com

Karla Tenorio Zumarraga in The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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