MEXICO CITY—Fed up with kidnappings and other violent crimes, more than 250,000 Mexicans marched in silent mass protest here Sunday, a grass-roots outpouring of rage that in the preceding days took on deeply political overtones.
Protesting the surge of violent crimes, especially kidnappings, that dominates Mexico’s news and political debate, the sea of marchers dressed in white walked two miles from the independence monument on the Paseo de la Reforma before emptying into the historic city center’s square, the Zocalo.
Many marchers held signs that commemorated family members or friends who were abducted and killed. Others demanded the death penalty for kidnappers, expressing the disgust many Mexicans have over the seeming powerlessness of government officials and police against the tide of violence.
“People are sick of it. We want the authorities to do their jobs,” said marcher Daniel Rodriguez, a hotel administrator. He held a sign with a picture of family friend Lizbeth Salinas, a 26-year-old graduate student who was kidnapped, raped and killed May 19, one of a litany of such cases in recent months.
Jaime Otero Janeiro, 53, marched in memory of his cousin Pedro Ferro Janeiro, who was fatally shot at a Mexico City intersection in May after resisting a carjacking.
“We can’t continue like this,” Otero said. “I am afraid not for me, but for my children, the kind of world they are inheriting.”
Kidnappings have been a problem in Mexico for decades. But the recent spate of brutal crimes, many of them ending in the deaths of captives after ransoms had been paid, has brought public outrage to a boiling point.
“There is a culture of fear in Mexico now. Thousands of these crimes happen, and the government doesn’t do anything about it. I learned about it the hard way,” said Carlos Albert Moreno, one of the march’s organizers. His two cousins, brothers Vicente, 29, and Sebastian Gutierrez Morena, 28, were killed May 24 after a week in captivity, even though their family had paid a reported $600,000 ransom.
Marchers came from as far away as Ensenada, Acapulco and Tampico. In interviews, their complaints were strikingly similar: that violent crime was increasingly touching Mexico’s middle class, that police were ineffective and that penalties for the relatively few criminals caught were too weak. Many are fearful of leaving their homes.
“The judge let the wife of my son’s kidnapper go six months after he was rescued in her house. She should have spent the rest of her life in jail,” said Sergio Garcia Montano, an Ensenada welding supply owner. The woman’s husband, the gang leader, was never caught. Garcia Montano marched with a sign calling for the judge to be fired.
Also feeding public outrage is the fact that targets increasingly are middle-class women, abducted from parking garages or lots at malls, banks and schools. Grabbed as they go about their daily business, such women are the fastest-growing category of kidnapping victims, said Max Morales, a Mexico City attorney and hostage negotiator.
Consider the case of 35-year-old homemaker Carolina. Two gunmen abducted the mother of three at a Mexico City parking lot as she was about to drive home from a movie.
She was held for 11 hours and released after her family paid $7,000 ransom, but only after she was severely beaten and sexually abused.
Carolina, who refused to give her last name for fear of reprisal, was one of several people seized this year at the popular Perisur mall, a plague that resulted in a brief boycott last week.
Her case reflects how kidnappers have become more brazen and less discriminating, opting for more abductions and smaller ransoms.
“We’re marching not for or against any political party but simply to let our government know we are tired of being prisoners in our own houses,” Carolina said in a phone interview before the march.
Reliable statistics on violent crime in Mexico are hard to come by, mainly because only a fraction of crimes—as few as one in five—are reported. Nonetheless, some cases are well-known. Hundreds of women have been killed in the last decade in Ciudad Juarez, which sent a delegation to the march, and Tijuana continues to witness drug-related violence.
Mexico, with an estimated 3,000 kidnappings annually, is second only to Colombia among Latin American nations. Although statistics are debatable, most security officials agree that abductions are increasing here.
Kidnapping is attracting criminals from other endeavors who see easy money and little chance of being caught or jailed, said Frank Holder, vice president of Kroll Inc., a global security consulting firm.
“Kidnappings are on the rise and are more violent because their nature is different than before. Instead of professionals, more are being done by opportunists who grab the person based on the car he or she drives, the clothes or watch they wear or the neighborhood they live in,” Holder said.
Fewer than 5% of kidnappings in Mexico result in convictions, which means the rewards of such crimes outweigh the risks, said Jose Antonio Ortega, a lawyer with the Citizen Council for Public Security and Penal Justice, a business-funded advocacy group lobbying for tougher kidnapping laws.
The march, originally organized by crime victims’ groups, by Sunday morning had gained support from 80 diverse human rights, civic and public interest groups, including the Mexican Assn. of Mayors, various school districts and universities, the Catholic Church and several expatriate groups.
The turnout was the largest ever for an anti-crime march in Mexico.
In the days leading up to it, the demonstration became a political football, with left-wing Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador contending that it would not be the grass-roots demonstration that victims groups said it was, but a right-wing plot to discredit him before the presidential election two years from now, in which he is expected to run.
Lopez Obrador stopped just short of calling Spain’s ambassador to Mexico, Cristina Barrios, a liar for saying that eight Spanish citizens had been kidnapped in the last month, five of whom were killed. But the Spanish Embassy listed the victims.
Barrios wasn’t the only diplomat to express displeasure: Ambassadors of seven other nations met with the city’s attorney general last week to complain about rampant crime.
Unlike the mayor, Mexican President Vicente Fox encouraged the march. But many see behind it an effort to shift responsibility for the crime wave from the federal government to the Mexico City mayor. Fox drew fire last week for pointedly reminding reporters that the incidence of kidnapping in the capital was the nation’s highest.
“That was bad timing, making it sound like it’s the mayor’s problem when it’s his problem too. So that wasn’t very helpful,” said John Bailey, an expert in Latin American crime and professor at Georgetown University. He also blamed the Mexican media for exaggerating the issue.
Crime is highly politicized partly because the 2006 Mexican presidential campaign is underway and the issue of public security, or lack of it, will be a major one in the election, said David Shirk, a political scientist specializing in Mexico and director of the Transborder Institute of the University of San Diego.
The political free-for-all over crime shows how “polarized Mexico is becoming and how the solution of day-to-day problems has surrendered to expectations surrounding the 2006 election,” said Sergio Aguayo, a political commentator and professor at Mexico City’s Colegio de Mexico.
Finger-pointing on crime also shows the deep fragmentation of Mexican society and politics, divisions that have become more evident since 2000 when President Fox and his National Action Party ended seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
“Public security is used at the debate table not with constructive intention but as a club to discredit your political adversary,” said Ernesto Lopez Portillo, president of the Institute for Security and Democracy, a nongovernmental civic policy group.
Expressing the motivation of many marchers was Mexico’s former U.N. ambassador, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, who on Friday wrote in a newspaper column that he planned to march not to make a political statement but to express his outrage over how six people among his family and friends, including his son and brother’s secretary, had been assaulted or kidnapped.
He wrote, “The common denominator at the core of the citizen protest is mistrust of the authorities, in their capability and sincerity in combating crime.”