Uriel “Eli” Del Alba was rescued by police, but not before his kidnappers faded into the morning fog with a $150,000 ransom.
Seven gunmen abducted Del Alba from his ranch north of town in November, making the 57-year-old businessman one of the latest victims of a relentless crime wave plaguing the South Texas border.
Meanwhile, the kidnapping trade has quietly flourished in the Rio Grande Valley, where Americans have about the same chance of getting abducted as they do in Mexico, officials say.
Since early 2004, there have been 78 kidnappings in Hidalgo County alone. And neighboring Starr County registered 19 kidnap or missing person cases in 2005 and 2006.
That compares with 98 kidnappings of Americans in all of Mexico in 2005 and 2006.
Kidnappings in the Valley are even outpacing those in the notorious Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo, where the FBI says 60 U.S. citizens have been abducted since April 2004.
Two of the kidnappers were later caught, and some of the ransom money recovered. Treviño said the two confessed and told investigators they planned to kidnap three other wealthy Hidalgo County business owners.
The surge in kidnappings has taken many Valley residents by surprise, the sheriff said.
“In Mexico, ransom kidnappings are a way of life. Over here it’s an anomaly,” he said.
“In the majority of the kidnappings, there is a drug nexus or a connection to a human trafficking organization,” said Treviño. “This stranger-on-stranger stuff, that’s a rarity.”
While officials in South Texas work to bring an end to the kidnappings, Mexican authorities are dealing with problems of their own.
The Matamoros-based Gulf Cartel and other drug gangs have branched out into the kidnapping-for-ransom business, U.S. law enforcement agents say.
“The Gulf Cartel has lost a great deal of money recently from interdicted drug shipments and has turned to kidnapping to recoup their losses,” according to a U.S. intelligence report, which said 57 businessmen had been abducted recently in northern Mexico.
U.S. and Mexican officials “think part of what is going on is due to some of the pressure we’re putting on smugglers of narcotics and illegal aliens,” said Alonzo Peña, who heads the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Phoenix.
In Laredo, FBI agents say 26 U.S. citizens remain missing among the 60 abducted in the Nuevo Laredo area since April 2004.
The tally of missing Americans includes Laredo customs broker Librado Peña Jr. and his son, who were taken by a gang of armed men from their private hunting ranch across the border on Nov. 27.
Because FBI agents have no jurisdiction in Mexico, Townsend said, they can do little more than pass on leads and other assistance to Mexican authorities.
There have been some successes. FBI agents on Sept. 20 arrested two alleged Gulf Cartel gunmen in Laredo after they released a man they kidnapped three weeks earlier in Houston.
The kidnap victim, suspected of losing a 650-pound load of marijuana, was taken to a Mexican border town and handed over to a cartel trafficker named “Lalo.” There, he was allegedly beaten by kidnappers until his family, contacted in Roma, delivered a $57,000 ransom.
The true extent of the drug-related violence in Mexico is hard to determine, since official reporting by police agencies can be incomplete. Press accounts of murders and kidnappings are an important indicator.
Mexico’s Human Rights Commission indicates kidnappings in border towns across from South Texas fell from 237 last year to 125 by early December. But some say those numbers would be higher if all abductions were published.