Hope Stalls As Hostage Negotiator Vanishes In Mexico

Twenty-two thousand people have been killed in Mexico's narco-war since December 2006. Thousands more have been kidnapped including American Felix Batista. He is an anti-kidnapping expert who himself was taken hostage. Host Michel Martin interviews his sister, Jackie Batista, who is advocating for his release.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, a story about a humble man who now makes furniture for some of the nation's most powerful people, and in doing so, is trying to bring economic life back to his hometown. We found that story in the pages of The Washington Post Magazine, and we'll tell you more about it just a few minutes.

But, first, a story that touches lives on both sides of our southern border. On this program, we've paid a lot of attention to the ongoing narco war in Mexico. According to the Mexican government's own figures, some 22,000 people have been killed in the narco war since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006. Many thousands of others had been kidnapped. No one can say exactly how many, because it is assumed that many cases are unreported. Also unknown is the precise number of American citizens that have been affected by the violence.

Recently, Americans were startled by the shooting deaths of two Americans with ties to the consulate just across the border. But the highest profile case is probably that of Felix Batista, who was kidnapped in Saltillo, Mexico in December 2008. The irony is that Batista is an anti-kidnapping expert, what's known in the trade as a kidnap-and-ransom specialist.

Over the course of his career, he negotiated the release of more than 100 hostages. No demands for ransom have been received since Batista's kidnapping. We've been following this story since the beginning, and now we're joined by Felix Batista's sister, Jackie Batista. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. JACKIE BATISTA: Thank you for having on the show.

MARTIN: What do you do in a situation like this, though? What can you do when you get that terrible phone call?

Ms. BATISTA: I'll never forget that night when I got the phone call. I was actually speaking with Lourdes, my sister-in-law. And we were talking - it was, like, 10 o'clock at night, and she goes, I think I'm getting a very important call on Felix's line. And she goes, I better let you go. And I didn't hear from her again. At 12:20 that night, I got the call saying Felix has been taken.

And I'm - I was obviously in a state of confusion. His daughter was living here in New York, going to the School of Visual Arts, and immediately I contacted her. And by 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock, we were at the airport so that she could fly down to be with her family.

So, what do you do? I have to say that there is no manual. There are no set of instructions. And it's really a state of, you don't know what to do. You just do what you think you need to do. Obviously, we're not alone in this. There are other families in the United States with families that have been taken, missing, abducted with absolutely no call, with absolutely no sense of where they are or why they've been taken.

And we keep in touch. Like, there's, we've had - I'd hate to say, like, a club, because let's say if I do something that works, then I will share that with that other family and that family will share it with other people that they know that are in the same predicament. I hope that people don't have to tap into us as sources, but if they need to, that's what - we will be here. You know, we've learned a lot as we go through what we're going through.

MARTIN: Can you tell us how and why your brother got into this line of work? And I do want to mention that he's a father of five. And I assume this is rather difficult, dangerous work. So I think people would appreciate knowing what was the appeal.

Ms. BATISTA: Yes, I actually asked him that myself the first night he told that this is what he was going to do. I remember sitting on my terrace on Miami Beach, where we - I was living in Miami at the time, and so was he. And he told me he was walking into this - coming into this field. And, you know, at the time he only had four kids, or maybe three at the time. And I was, like, you have children. Is this really what you want to do?

And he said, yes, this is exactly what I want to do. I've done security work in the past, and this is something that really calls me, the fact that I have the intelligence in order to help families and bring people back together. So, yeah, I thought it was a little dangerous myself. But he felt really comfortable, and he's been doing this for over 27 years and never had a problem. So this is why this took us for a total surprise when we received the call that he had been abducted.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense, or has your family ever been given any substantive clues about why your brother was taken?

Ms. BATISTA: There's a lot of assumptions, and we can make - we have a lot of theories, but nothing's really concrete. One of my theories is that, you know, Felix was in the business of making people's lives safe. So, I don't want to say that that's the reason why, but it's the reason why I think it's probably one of the causes.

MARTIN: I think, let's assume that he was kidnapped in part to send a message.

Ms. BATISTA: Yes.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of - to whom was the message directed?

Ms. BATISTA: You know, again, it's all speculation. I could say that it was a message to say, hey, you know, this could happen to anyone, regardless if you're a specialist or not. As we have seen, that is the case with police officers, people who have been working in the narco agents area. So you know that nobody is really safe because of the corruption level being on so many levels of politics, as well as the officials, that you don't know who you can trust.

MARTIN: Well, it's assumed that kidnapping is, in part, a business now, I mean, that people do it because they can make money doing it. But I think it's fair to say one of the ominous things about this case is that no demand has ever been made. Do I have that right?

Ms. BATISTA: Absolutely right. We had been really quiet as a family for the first three weeks, awaiting anxiously for that call to come in. You know, as you know, I live up in the Northeast and he lives in Miami. So I relocated myself for a while to be with the family for the receipt of that call. And unfortunately, the call didn't come through. And that's we went public with a press release during the first week of January, because we figured it had been a long time now. We haven't heard anything. No one's contacted us. Not even a sign via a newspaper clipping, nothing. We received nothing.

MARTIN: That must be horrible, actually.

Ms. BATISTA: No, it's absolutely horrible. And, you know, the silence is deafening, and this is why I started a petition at the 100th day of not hearing anything from him because at that time, Hillary Clinton was traveling to Mexico. And then the petition started then to say that anytime any U.S. official travels to Mexico and meets with officials there, we'd like to bring up the case of security not just for Americans, but for everybody.

Because, as you know, this is not a U.S. issue where U.S. citizens are traveling into Mexico. This is anyone who's traveling into Mexico and residents of Mexico themselves.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jackie Batista. We're talking about her brother, hostage negotiator Felix Batista, who was himself kidnapped in Mexico in December 2008.

Jackie, forgive me, it's a difficult question, I have to ask, though: Do you think he's still alive?

Ms. BATISTA: I mean, from day one, I would say that we're always hoping for the best and preparing ourselves for the worst. I would say that we still have the hope that my brother is in some way, shape or form, available to come back to us in the United States, that he have a proper farewell if he is no longer with us.

So, realistically, do I believe my brother is alive? Well, emotionally, I don't want to believe it, but realistically, based on all of the facts and numbers coming in from the crime and violence in Mexico, I'm afraid that he's probably not, given that it's been over 500 days and given that the brutality that these people - and I mean the kidnappers and things that they have been doing to people, innocent people and people who have been involved with drugs. I would say that they're not that caring to keep somebody for over 500 days in any good way, shape or form.

We've done everything that we can as a family to get some information, to get some closure, to get the U.S. government involved and to get the Mexican officials involved and working with the Mexican officials. And I think we've, you know, it's a lot of work, but it actually paid off.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, my brother's a constituent of her district, and she immediately responded, and so did Senator Bob Nelson from Florida. And we've been able to talk to the ambassador of Mexico in D.C. We've been talking to -we even have spoken to the U.S. ambassador in Mexico City, just to really keep it - please don't forget this case, you know. Felix Batista is a wonderful human being, and we don't want it to be forgotten that we need to find him regardless of how long it's been.

MARTIN: How are his wife and children doing? How are they holding up?

Ms. BATISTA: His little girl just turned 18 this past Saturday. So - and I know that was something that he was so looking forward to seeing happen, as well as her going away to college this summer. So I would say that of all the kids, she's probably the most affected, for she was the youngest one. And because my brother's job took him away for long periods of time, I think it took a little longer to hit and to sink in that Daddy may not be coming back.

So, you know, they went through that whole, he'll be fine, he'll be back, he's coming back.

And then I think we finally, then you hit the wall where maybe he's not coming back. And I think that they've been dealing with that the best way that they can, the best way that they can. I think they're doing okay considering.

MARTIN: Well, how are you keeping up?

Ms. BATISTA: How do I keep up?

MARTIN: Yeah. How do you keep a good thought?

Ms. BATISTA: I have to tell you, if it was up to my emotional being, I wouldn't get up from bed after I was told what happened, you know. But because I am a mom, I am a teacher - now; I was in school full time. And I really love my family and I love my brother. I am doing what I know that he would've done for me. So that keeps me going. It's very project-based and it's what keeps me wanting to be an advocate to, hey, this is happening in Mexico and this has happened to my brother and what are we going to do about it in order to get some closure? And that's what keeps me going is my love for my brother.

MARTIN: Jackie Batista is the sister of American hostage negotiator Felix Batista. As we told you, he was kidnapped in Mexico in December 2008. Jackie Batista, we thank you so much for speaking with us. And we, of course, wish the best to your family.

Ms. BATISTA: Well, thank you very much for having me on the show. And hopefully we'll have another conversation with some better end results.

MARTIN: I do hope so.

Ms. BATISTA: Me too.

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