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Saturday, June 26, 2004

DallasNews.com | Wave of abductions raises fear in Mexico

DallasNews.com | News for Dallas, Texas | World: Mexico

Wave of abductions raises fear in Mexico
Citizens take drastic measures as kidnappers adopt new tactics
11:03 PM CDT on Friday, June 25, 2004
By RICARDO SANDOVAL / The Dallas Morning News

MEXICO CITY – Lizbeth Itzel Salinas spent the last three hours of her 26 years being beaten inside a Mexico City taxi.

She was kidnapped last month after hailing a cab outside the offices of the Mexican information ministry, where she worked as a public records investigator. Three assailants forced her to give up her bank account identification number and then threw her from the moving car.

The economics graduate of the Technological Institute of Monterrey, who also attended the University of Texas in Austin, died after the incident. She is one of at least 12 people killed in recent kidnappings in and around Mexico City and among an estimated 160 Mexicans who have died in kidnappings since 1996.

Many Mexicans are apprehensive as a resurgent wave of kidnappings grips the country. Public alarm has grown amid the deaths and a startling change in tactics by kidnappers, who now show no fear of targeting women and children – once thought to be off-limits. Businesses are sending executives or their families abroad and arming themselves, often with illegal weapons.

On Sunday, business leaders are pulling civic groups and victims' rights organizations into a Mexico City march against kidnapping and violence. Organizers are calling for tens of thousands to converge on the city center.

Mexicans complain that they see chronically inept and corrupt police, and lawmakers devoting more time to bickering over who is to blame – even accusing victims' families and private security consultants of making it tough on law enforcement by not reporting kidnappings.

"I agree that in all of our institutions there is corruption," said Rafael Macedo de la Concha, Mexico's attorney general.

Kroll Inc., a New York-based security firm, said there were 3,000 kidnappings last year in Mexico. The country is No. 2 in Latin America for kidnappings, behind only Colombia. Mexican federal prosecutors put the figure at 2,165 kidnappings – for 2003 – of which only 422 were officially reported.

Kidnapping or robbery?

Ms. Salinas' case exemplifies the difficulty in dealing with the crime. Her abduction is not even considered a kidnapping. Almost daily, victims are picked up by rogue taxis in so-called "express" kidnappings: short-lived abductions during which a victim is forced to empty bank and credit card accounts. Local police consider these robberies.

"My daughter was forcefully deprived of her freedom, and then she was murdered. I call that kidnapping," said her father, Constantino Salinas Arce.

Mexican President Vicente Fox has urged reforms to bolster police work against kidnappers. On Monday, Mexico City authorities proposed penalties of up to 40 years for kidnappers.

Other proposals also have surfaced recently, including:

A plan to punish private ransom negotiators if they do not share kidnapping information with authorities. Mexican law considers it encubrimiento – a cover-up – to not report knowledge of a crime.

Freezing the assets of victims' families, eliminating the lure of profits for kidnappers. Veracruz state officials have started this practice, and other states are studying the measure.

A growing call by activists for the death penalty for kidnappers of children, or those who kill their victims.

Mr. de la Concha said reforms are on their way, starting with a public campaign to get victims to report kidnappings. He said his office will produce a nationwide strategy for kidnap prevention and prosecution, and develop a national kidnapper database to prevent criminals and corrupt police from jumping from state to state to avoid prosecutors.

For now, kidnapping in Mexico remains a state crime, with a patchwork of lax penalties, experts said.

"Kidnappers are not waiting for police reforms, they're busy figuring out new ways to get victims and to get their families' money," said Paul Magallanes, a former FBI agent whose Los Angeles firm specializes in personal security and kidnap negotiations in Latin America.

Getting bolder

Kidnappers in Mexico once aimed squarely at the money, holding businessmen for a few days until families coughed up multimillion-dollar ransoms. Today kidnappers appear unafraid of hacking fingers off children, torturing women and killing victims.

Last week the chief of the anti-kidnap police squad in Mexico state was gunned down, days after leading a high-profile hunt for assailants who had kidnapped and murdered two men on Mexico City's south side. Then, five Mexico City police officers were arrested for allegedly aiding other kidnap gangs.

In response, average citizens are turning to expensive security firms to supply bodyguards and bulletproof vehicles, teach them anti-kidnap driving maneuvers and negotiate ransoms. Analysts said private corporations are spending up to $20,000 a month for security – even buying guns from the black market, illegally, for protection.

Security experts say the private protection business in Mexico takes in at least $1 billion a year.

Those with means have moved themselves or their families altogether. Singer Vicente Fernandez relocated his family to San Antonio, Texas, after recovering one of his sons, whose chopped-off finger was sent as proof of his captivity. Another singer, Thalia, now lives in New York. Two of her sisters were kidnapped in 2001; one now lives in Washington, D.C.

For those who stay, living with a fear of kidnappings means hiring bodyguards. At private facilities such as the American School, where many foreign families send their children, sport utility vehicles speed up to guarded entrances, with armed bodyguards quickly jumping out to escort children onto school campuses.

The kidnapping problem has grown so much that the government of Spain this week warned its citizens about traveling to Mexico City. The warning came after eight Spaniards were kidnapped, and six died.

U.S. officials have not issued similar alerts but warn Americans to steer clear of some Mexico City neighborhoods and to avoid freelance taxis.

Overall, crime in Mexico City has declined somewhat since Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office in 2000. But kidnapping, security experts said, can dominate headlines and scare the public, especially when criminals start targeting women and children. Federal agents report having dismantled 47 kidnap gangs and arrested about 300 suspects since 2000.

Private security firms insist that kidnapping is fueled by inept or corrupt police and government indifference that leads citizens to avoid contacting authorities.

"In kidnapping, it is a chicken-egg kind of problem," Mr. Magallanes said. "People don't trust the police because they've too often been found to be either in league with kidnappers, or just inept in handling a kidnap case. And that leaves police then unable to do their work."

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