Posted on September 20, 2004

Mexicans Try To Fight Plague Of Kidnapping

Chris Hawley, Arizona Republic, Sept. 8

The video arrived last week by e-mail, blurry and jerky and laced with terror. The man staring into the camera was gaunt, bearded and desperate.

“Today marks 70 days since I was kidnapped, and these people are prepared to do anything,” Javier Garcia Navarro said in a message to his family. “It’s not worth using any other means other than negotiation, since that could put my life at risk. It is very important that the police not intervene in what you are doing.”

Kidnapping has become a plague in Mexico, and new anti-crime measures seem to have done little to curtail the problem, which affects foreigners and natives, the rich and not-so-rich.

In recent weeks, four agents of Mexico’s FBI have been charged with kidnapping in Tijuana, and a noted doctor was abducted and brutally killed in a sewage canal near Mexico City. In Hermosillo, 140 miles south of Arizona, the body of a small girl was found Aug. 5, rotting in a suitcase with a note that read: “Please bury her. It’s not her fault. Her parents didn’t pay.”

Meanwhile, the Denzel Washington film Man on Fire, a movie about kidnappings in Mexico City, is leaving Mexicans worried about their image abroad.

The case of Garcia Navarro, a businessman from San Luis Potosí, 210 miles northwest of Mexico City, gained attention after the Reforma newspaper posted his video on its Web site Friday. But his abduction is just one of about 2,000 a year in Mexico, according to one kidnapping negotiator. That figure does not include the increasingly common “express kidnappings” in which victims are held for a few hours or days while the abductors use their bank cards.

Experts estimate that more than 90 percent of Mexico’s kidnappings are never reported because families fear the victims will be killed or that the police are involved in the crime. But the few government statistics available show the problem is getting worse.

‘Worse than you know’

Those who survive their kidnappings say they are haunted for years.

“Jan,” the European owner of a construction and interior-design firm, said he thinks constantly about the day he was stopped at gunpoint at a stoplight by four gunmen in Mexico City’s ritzy Polanco district.

The men threw him into a green-and-white Volkswagen Beetle, the equivalent of a yellow cab in Mexico City, and stripped him down to his underwear.

“They drove me around and beat me every half-hour. They broke my finger, they broke my foot,” said Jan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being kidnapped again.

“Thank God, they hadn’t figured out who I was yet. I lied and told them I was with the embassy,” he said. “They asked me why I had a platinum card. I said it wasn’t really my account, that my boss had given it to me to use.”

After two days, the kidnappers stopped near a military base to transfer Jan to another car. As the door opened, he kicked the youngest captor and lunged toward the guardhouse. Startled, the kidnappers fled.

“I escaped through pure luck,” he said. “But maybe next time I won’t be so lucky. Maybe next time I won’t be such a good actor. Maybe I’ll get mad and they’ll kill me.”

After the kidnapping in 2000, Jan hired bodyguards. But after three months of watching his family being muscled through public places, he fired them.

“The bodyguards are more dangerous than the criminals. They know everything about you, how much you earn, what you do, who you know,” he said.

Six months after the kidnapping, the nightmares started. Six months after that, the same gang tried to kidnap another businessman, one of the kidnappers was shot by police, and investigators tracked down the others. Jan was brought in to identify the gunmen.

“Turns out they were ex-police,” he said. “This is why nobody tells the police anything. The problem is 100 times worse than you know.”

Government response

Experts agree that only a fraction of kidnappings are reported, but official statistics seem to indicate the numbers are on the rise.

The number of kidnapping-for-ransom cases handled by the federal government, ones known to involve organized crime, rose from 67 in 2001 to 107 in 2002 and 169 in 2003. There had already been 88 cases in 2004 by May, when the latest statistics were released.

As for cases handled by local authorities, the Mexico City government says police received 168 reports of people being kidnapped in 2000, 174 in 2001, 186 in 2002 and 149 in 2003. As of June, 99 people had been reported kidnapped in 2004, a pace that will break all records if it continues.

Alarmed by the wave of kidnappings and robberies, hundreds of thousands of people marched June 27 to demand action, and federal lawmakers responded with a handful of new bills. One gives local police the ability to investigate kidnappings, previously the province of only state and federal police. Another is aimed at “express kidnappings.” It makes “denial of liberty” a felony, no matter how short the period of time and regardless of whether there is proof that the intent was robbery. The Senate has passed both bills; the lower house is expected to pass them this month.

The Mexico City government, meanwhile, boosted the maximum penalty for express kidnappings from 20 years in prison to 50. New local laws call for sentences of up to eight years for anyone who serves as an intermediary with the kidnappers, publicizes the kidnappers’ demands or advises families not to report the kidnappings. Taxi drivers must also install satellite tracking systems in their cars by 2009 in an attempt to crack down on cabbies who kidnap passengers.

“The march really reflected the worries of the populace, and we in government have been trying to respond,” said David Jiménez González, chairman of the Senate’s Mexico City Committee.

But the kidnappings have continued.

On July 21, three men kidnapped Carmen Clementina Gutiérrez, a doctor known for her work in anti-smoking clinics, and demanded a $300,000 ransom.

Gutiérrez’s husband promised to come up with the money. But as the hours passed, the kidnappers got nervous.

They took the doctor to Chalco, east of Mexico City, and made her walk along a sewage canal, Noé Iniestra Ortiz, the leader of the group, told police.

The kidnappers then tried to strangle her with a cable. When they saw she was still alive, they shoved her head underwater until she drowned, police say.

Her brutal death shocked Mexicans. President Vicente Fox called it “an affront to all society.”

A month later, more bad news: Four agents from the Federal Investigation Agency, a unit set up by the Fox government to battle kidnappings and other crimes, were charged with helping to kidnap a druggist in Tijuana and demanding an $18,000 ransom.

Silver-screen shame

At the Cinépolis movie theater on the Paseo de la Reforma, Man on Fire, draws a steady stream of curious Mexicans.

The moviegoers were mostly quiet as they watched Washington’s character torture and kill Mexican kidnappers and corrupt cops during a recent screening. But there was a murmur of recognition during one scene, in which a distraught father stopped at a traffic circle to receive instructions from his daughter’s kidnappers.

The traffic circle, as it happens, is right in front of the Cinépolis movie theater.

The movie troubled some in the audience.

“It’s sad that this is the image we’re giving to the world,” said Oscar Islas Manrique, 32. “But then, this is a situation that many people are living here. Maybe when they see how bad it looks to the rest of the world, maybe the police will finally do something about this problem.”