Kidnapping Expert Kidnapped In Mexico

A U.S. kidnapping expert was himself abducted in northern Mexico last month. He hasn't been heard from since. The case of Felix Batista highlights the growing danger kidnapping gangs pose south of the border.

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One month ago, an American expert on kidnapping was himself abducted in northern Mexico. He hasn't been heard from since. Felix Batista had been invited to the relatively quiet city of Saltillo to give seminars on corporate security. Batista worked as a private hostage negotiator, and his former employer says he successfully resolved nearly a hundred kidnappings. His abduction underscores the rampant kidnapping problem in Mexico. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Mexico City.

JASON BEAUBIEN: This week in Miami, Felix Batista's wife, Lourdes, made an impassioned plea for her husband's life. She appealed to his captors to let him go.

Ms. LOURDES BATISTA: I beg you with all the strength in my heart to please have mercy.

BEAUBIEN: Batista disappeared on December 10th after getting into an SUV outside a Saltillo restaurant. Local officials say they're not calling his disappearance a kidnapping because so far, there's been no ransom demand. In fact, there's been no contact with Batista at all. Kidnapping has become a major criminal enterprise in Mexico. Various gangs attack all levels of society. Some run express kidnappings, in which a person is held just long enough to withdraw the daily limit from their ATM cards. Others grab the children of poor merchants and extract ransoms of several hundred dollars. More sophisticated gangs target the upper-middle class, the rich and foreign business executives. Initial ransom demands in these cases can be in the millions of dollars. Batista was part of an industry that specializes in negotiating with these hostage takers.

Mr. FRED BURTON (Vice President of Counter-Terrorism and Corporate Security, Stratfor): Any Western business that has operations, whether it be manufacturing in Mexico, have K&R, kidnap and ransom insurance, on their executives.

BEAUBIEN: Fred Burton is the vice president of counter-terrorism and Corporate Security at Stratfor, a private intelligence company based in Austin, Texas. Burton used to work on hostage situations for the U.S. State Department. He says kidnappings are increasing in Mexico, and have become so common that large companies factor them in as part of the cost of doing business. And the criminals, Burton says, know this.

Mr. BURTON: The facts are, most companies do pay.

BEAUBIEN: And this generally gets covered by the company's insurance. Burton says abduction teams may have grabbed Batista because his job was to come in and try to negotiate down that final ransom payment to the lowest level possible. The cartels may not have been happy about him doing this. Hundreds of kidnappings are reported each year in Mexico, but most are never brought to the attention of authorities. The FBI says at least 17 Americans, including Batista, have been kidnapped in Mexico since October.

Last year, two high-profile kidnapping cases dominated the news in Mexico. One was the abduction of the teenage daughter of a former cabinet minister. The other was the abduction of the teenage son of a fitness-chain mogul. Both families offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to the kidnappers, yet both children were killed.

Mr. FELIX BATISTA (Anti-Kidnapping Expert): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Felix Batista, in an interview with Seguridad Total TV before he was abducted, estimated that 20 percent of victims in Mexico are mutilated, raped or killed by their captors - a rate that he says is far higher than anywhere other than Iraq. Batista goes on to advise how to survive a kidnapping.

Mr. BATISTA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: First, he says, remain calm. Then, try to get rid of any information or photos in your wallet or purse about your family. He advises people to give their captors the minimum amount of information possible. Give the kidnappers just one contact with whom they can open negotiations. Most kidnappings, he says, are resolved in a few days or a week. The fact that Batista hasn't been heard from for a month is, by his own view on these things, a bad sign. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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