Posted on February 16, 2006

Mexico Admits Hostage Rescue Was Staged for TV

Jo Tuckman, Guardian (London), Feb. 16, 2006

The Mexican government has admitted to staging a dramatic kidnap rescue for the benefit of a prime-time television audience.

The raid, televised on December 9, in which Mexico’s equivalent of the FBI burst into a farmhouse at dawn, guns at the ready, to subjugate four alleged kidnappers and liberate three victims, had been presented by the government as proof that it was winning the battle against organised crime.

This week a presidential spokesman, Ruben Aguilar, accepted it was staged and called it a mistake. The authorities had sought to share the blame with journalists that they claim asked the police to replay arrests carried out hours before. “All we tried to do was serve you, the media,” the attorney general, Daniel Cabeza de Vaca, told a news conference. “That and show the public that there is an institution that is working for them, that has successes and that arrests people.”

The two main television companies, which both broadcast the images, have been embarrassed by the revelation. Not only did they film the swoop on the farmhouse just south of Mexico City, but they also followed the heavily armed police team inside and stuck microphones in the faces of the detainees and the three kidnap victims.

The revelation has also raised questions about the authenticity of other events presented as live in the past, including the rescue last year of the kidnapped manager of a Mexican football team, Cruz Azul.

Televisa, the country’s biggest network, has sacked the reporter who worked on the farmhouse story. Sources inside the corporation said an internal investigation into how it happened has been launched.

Television Azteca has insisted it received an early morning tip-off from the police and merely sent a reporter and camera crew to the scene.

Official confirmation that this was, in fact, not-so-reality TV was prompted by the publicity given to one of the alleged kidnappers arrested on camera, who has consistently claimed she was the victim of a farce.

Florence Cassez, a French citizen, says she was detained the day before the raid, kept overnight in a police vehicle and planted inside the farmhouse, where her ex-boyfriend lived, shortly before the television crews arrived.

Ms Cassez and her former boyfriend, Israel Vallarta, are accused of belonging to a kidnapping gang known as The Zodiacs. Police say the couple were holding a mother, her 11-year-old son, and another young man when the farmhouse was raided, first in a real operation and then again for live TV. Ms Cassez is in custody in Mexico City while the attorney general’s office builds its case. The government has made it clear, however, that while it now accepts that part of her story is true, it does not see how this alters her legal status.

The country’s organised crime tsar, José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, told reporters: “The interesting thing would be to ask the [rescued kidnap] victims what they think of the show being staged by the kidnappers’ defence in order to attain impunity in this case.”