Saturday, June 26, 2004

New, more brutal wave of kidnappings sparking protests across Latin America > News > Mexico -- New, more brutal wave of kidnappings sparking protests across Latin America

10:20 a.m. June 26, 2004

Associated Press
A protester who gave her name only as Maria, center, and Elia, demonstrate with banners calling for more protection against crime outside a shopping mall in Mexico City. Revulsion over abductions sparked a week of protests this month by housewives in Mexico.

MEXICO CITY – Joshua Sierra's family wasn't rich. They lived in an apartment on Mexico City's gritty east side and hardly fit the mold of the affluent foreigners who have so often fallen prey to kidnappers.

But on a summer day last year, 2-year-old Joshua disappeared.

The abduction falls into a troubling trend taking hold across Latin America: Kidnappers are becoming more reckless, more brutal, and more random about whom they choose to snatch off the streets.

"Once they get you, they tend to be more violent, because they don't really have any coherent idea of how much money you have, or where you keep it," said Frank Holder, former head of Latin American operations for risk management company Kroll Inc. "They may decide to torture you to get that information."

Revulsion over such abductions sparked a week of protests this month by housewives in Mexico, while a fatal kidnapping in Argentina led tens of thousands to demonstrate in the streets of Buenos Aires in April. A similar mass rally is being held Sunday in Mexico City.

Joshua's story is a chilling illustration of the new tactics.

When the kidnappers seized the boy from his apartment, they left behind the strangled corpse of the toddler's 15-year-old cousin.

The family scraped together a $10,000 ransom for Joshua, but the boy has not been returned.

"We just want them to return Joshua," said the boy's aunt, Yolanda Torres. "We have hopes that he is still alive."

Mexican officials claim kidnappings have been declining overall, even as the abductors' methods become more brutal.

Federal and state crime statistics indicate kidnappings peaked in 1997 – with 1,047 known abductions – but even government officials concede the majority of kidnappings are never reported to police.

Kroll estimates Mexico has the second-highest number of kidnappings behind Colombia, where many abductions are political. The company estimates that in 2003, there were 4,000 kidnappings in Colombia, 3,000 in Mexico and 2,000 in Argentina.

Abductions of the kind depicted in the recent Denzel Washington movie "Man on Fire" are sophisticated operations in which the perpetrators may study wealthy targets for months. The gangs usually have experience, a negotiating plan and an exit strategy.

As police crack down on such professionals, small-time criminals have been going after people who cannot afford to travel with bodyguards and bulletproof cars.

Fearing victims might identify them once set free, kidnappers have taken to killing their prey even after ransoms are paid.

"The demonic thing about opportunistic kidnapping is that anyone could be a victim," Holder said.

Con artists also have been taking advantage of the kidnapping fears.

In so-called virtual kidnappings, gangs gather information on a victim, then wait until the person is temporarily out of reach and call their families to claim their loved one has been kidnapped.

In one recent case, a man was dropped off at the Mexico City airport by his wife. As he waited for her to park the car, three men approached, described the wife perfectly and said they were holding her and would harm her unless he gave them money.

He did, only to find the woman had never been abducted.

There have even been self-kidnappings, or young people who persuade acquaintances to tell their parents they have been abducted to try to wring money out of them.

In the past, express kidnappings involved a victim abducted in a car or taxi, driven around for a few hours, beaten and threatened so the attackers could get a PIN number and make cash withdrawals from an automated teller machine. Many police departments still classify those cases as armed robbery, not kidnapping.

But those kidnappings have evolved and now can last for days, weeks or months.

"Kidnappers have become more ruthless," said Genaro Gongora Pimentel, a Mexican Supreme Court justice.


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