Mexico's Drug War Spawns Wave Of Kidnappings

A group of people kidnapped by alleged drug traffickers i

A group of people kidnapped by alleged drug traffickers as they were rescued by members of the Mexican army in Sabinas Hidalgo, north of Monterrey, on April 27. Sixteen people, including a woman and a 2-year-old girl, were rescued during the operation. Dario Leon/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Dario Leon/AFP/Getty Images
A group of people kidnapped by alleged drug traffickers

A group of people kidnapped by alleged drug traffickers as they were rescued by members of the Mexican army in Sabinas Hidalgo, north of Monterrey, on April 27. Sixteen people, including a woman and a 2-year-old girl, were rescued during the operation.

Dario Leon/AFP/Getty Images

As Mexico pushes forward with its offensive against the drug cartels, violence has spread and the country has been rocked recently by a wave of high-profile kidnappings.

One of the most powerful political figures in the country, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, known as "El Jefe Diego," is currently being held for ransom.

Last week the mayor of a small city outside Monterrey was abducted, tortured and eventually killed. Over the weekend Olegario Guzman Orquiz, a prominent construction magnate in Chihuahua state and close friend of the governor-elect, was grabbed from his country club.

Official statistics on reported kidnappings in Mexico show a 15 percent increase in the crime this year, but security analysts say official figures grossly undercount abductions. Most victims never report what happened to the authorities.

Kidnapping in Mexico doesn't only affect the wealthy. People from all levels of society — farmers, street vendors, small-business owners, professionals — get kidnapped.

Julian Hakim, a medical student, was abducted by two men in a shopping center parking garage in Mexico City. They jammed pistols into his ribs and forced him into the passenger seat. "I told them, 'You guys can take the car, just let me get out,' " Hakim says. " 'I don’t know why you need me. Take the car, take my wallet.' "

The gunmen took Hakim to an ATM and ordered him to withdraw the daily limit from his credit cards. Then they ordered him to get back into his aging VW Passat.

So-called express kidnappings are the most common in Mexico. They tend to be for the least amount of money but can still be terrifying for the victim.

Hakim says his captors struck him repeatedly with their guns. "Anything I said, I'd get hit. I'd get hit in the ribs. Or I'd get hit in face. Anything. They'd be like, 'Why you talking back?' Boom! And they'd hit me."

The most high-profile kidnapping case currently in Mexico is the politician Fernandez, 69, who was snatched from his Hummer in May. Fernandez is a leader of President Felipe Calderon's political party, the PAN. He also was the runner-up in the 1994 presidential election.

In June, his captors released photos of the man, shirtless, gaunt and blindfolded. The local press reports that the ransom demand for Fernandez started at $50 million.

Carlos Seoane, vice president of Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations in Mexico, says kidnapping in Mexico is a business. The sophistication of the kidnappers varies, he says, but it's always an organized crime.

Diego Fernandez de Cevallos was kidnapped in May. i

Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, a former Mexican presidential candidate for the National Action Party, or PAN, was kidnapped in May. His car was found empty near his ranch in Queretaro state. Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
Diego Fernandez de Cevallos was kidnapped in May.

Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, a former Mexican presidential candidate for the National Action Party, or PAN, was kidnapped in May. His car was found empty near his ranch in Queretaro state.

Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

Seoane says kidnapping has to be done by a group. "You have to take care of the victim. You have to capture the victim. You have to go out on the streets and make negotiations. And from there go pick up the money. And then release the victim. It's [much more] difficult than to, say, grab a car and get the hell out of there," he says.

Pinkerton doesn't negotiate directly with kidnappers, Seoane says, but it provides crisis management mainly for corporate clients during hostage situations. Pinkerton employees guide the victim's family through the process of swapping money for their relative.

"That process could be pretty messy, or pretty violent or pretty long or pretty expensive," Seoane says. "So we focus a lot on reducing the time and protecting the family’s assets."

Seoane says that one of the difficulties in Mexico is that the drug cartels have now gotten into kidnapping to supplement their income. He says some of these gangs don't understand the complexity of ransom negotiations and they also tend to be much more violent. Seoane says there used to be a criminal code of conduct in Mexico, but not any longer.

"There are no codes. There are no boundaries. There are no limits. There is a high degree of impunity," he says. "That's the big worry of all of us that live in Mexico. There were limits in the past; now there are no limits."

Politicians have been calling for increased prison terms, and the government has offered million-dollar rewards for some of Mexico's most notorious kidnappers. Yet according to official statistics the number of reported abductions continues to rise.

Hakim was lucky. His kidnapping in October 2008 lasted only about six hours. He was held in his passenger seat at gunpoint as his captors cruised aimlessly, it seemed to him, around the capital.

Eventually they drove him out of Mexico City, heading north toward Queretaro. He says they were hitting him repeatedly.

"It got to a point where it was very painful, but mentally I was torn into pieces. I was just so scared for my life," he says. "I didn't care if they left the biggest bruise in the world; I just didn't want them to kill me. The mental scars they left on me were the worst."

Finally they dumped Hakim by the side of the road and sped off with his car.

Despite his captors telling him they would kill him if he went to the authorities, he filed a police report.

As is the norm in so many of these cases in Mexico, nothing ever came of it.

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