2003International Reporting

Kidnapping is Growth Industry in Mexico

Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
September 17, 2002;
Page A01

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MEXICO CITY -- The videotapes and photos arrived every few days. They showed a young woman, bound and scared, crying out as her kidnappers slapped her face and beat her. The pictures, the sounds of pain, tore at her uncle Gerardo like a dull razor.

"When do you want us to stop?" the kidnappers asked on the tapes, and in phone calls that always came between 2 and 4 in the morning. They threatened that the next time they would send her tongue, her eye, her ears, her fingers. They wanted $5 million in ransom, and they offered specific suggestions about which of Gerardo's properties and businesses he could sell to raise it.

He didn't call the police. The kidnappers said they would kill his niece, his mother, his children if he did. From the extent of the kidnappers' information about him, he suspected that the police were involved anyway, as they are in so many cases here. Police cars parked outside his office and his mother's house seemed like a warning he didn't dare ignore.

Gerardo said he considers himself brave, a steel-spined businessman, tough as his Lebanese grandparents who moved to Mexico at the turn of the last century. But the cries of his 19-year-old niece, kidnapped at the point of a machine gun as she walked to school, were more than he could take. And, he said, the words -- "When do you want us to stop?" -- haunted him.

"They get one of your kids and they finish you," he said.

At least once a day in Mexico, someone is kidnapped for ransom, ruining lives and extracting a punishing economic cost from the victims and their companies. It has become so common here that being abducted at gunpoint and held for weeks or months has become part of the fabric of life, an accepted risk, a simple cost of doing business.

Mexican businessmen are overwhelmingly the victims, largely because Mexico has developed a culture in which ransoms are quickly paid and the police are rarely notified. According to court records and interviews with victims and security specialists, police are often involved in kidnappings, and a weak and corrupt judicial system often means they won't be caught.

This article is another in an occasional series about how Mexico remains a nation lacking rule of law. President Vicente Fox took office almost two years ago promising to tackle the legacy of corruption that developed during seven decades of authoritarian one-party rule. But as he struggles against these deeply entrenched forces, Mexico is still a place where criminals carry out the cruelest of acts knowing they are safely beyond the law.

"Criminals do risk analysis," said Jorge Septien, a private security specialist. "They know that less than 1 percent of criminals end up in jail because there's so much corruption and impunity. The government is giving the message to criminals that crime is a good business."

Fifteen years ago, kidnapping barely existed here. But crime began increasing here in the 1980s and an economic crash in 1994-95 seemed to make fundamental changes in Mexico, turning kidnapping -- and crime generally -- into a growth industry. Kidnappings decreased some in the late 1990s, but analysts said they are again increasing in a society where people feel the authorities do not protect them.

Last year, businessman Eduardo Gallo conducted his own investigation into the kidnapping and murder of his 25-year-old daughter, Paola. Furious with police inaction, Gallo began a private probe that eventually nabbed the killers. He recently published a book on his travails called "Paola: Denunciation of a Kidnapping and of a Corrupt Society."

Officials at Coparmex, the country's largest and most influential employers' association, said they know of at least 360 kidnappings last year; they already know of 331 in the first eight months of this year. There are no reliable and complete statistics available. But security firms say the actual numbers are many times higher than what Coparmex has recorded, leaving Mexico and Colombia in a league of their own in Latin American kidnappings.

Kidnapping has become such an industry in Mexico that no one is immune: Maids are held for $500 in ransom; a 12-year-old Tijuana girl was kidnapped this year by college students trying to raise money for school; people fake their own kidnappings to collect from their own families or businesses.

Executives are still the most lucrative target, including foreigners. The daughter of the local head of a Japanese tire manufacturer was kidnapped in 2000, and the company paid more than $1 million in ransom. The chief of a German car manufacturer's Mexican operation left the country about 18 months ago after his wife was kidnapped and a $1 million ransom was paid. A Spanish banker left this summer after he was kidnapped and released.

"It's not unusual for people to take their whole families and leave the country," said the president of Coparmex, Jorge Espina Reyes. "Once someone suffers a kidnapping in their family, it affects them for the rest of their lives. They're willing to do anything, leave their country and their business, so that they won't ever have to live through that experience again."

An Unending Ordeal

Six months after the kidnapping, Gerardo said he is still too frightened of the kidnappers to allow his last name to be used in this article. He said his niece, an architecture student, was held for more than a month in a small, dark room with the television turned up loud day and night. She told him four of her captors slept in the room with her. They never sexually assaulted her, but their presence in the flickering light of the TV every night added to her terror.

Another kidnapping victim, a teenage boy, was being held in the same house. The niece told Gerardo that she never saw him, but she could hear him, listening through the wall as the kidnappers stripped him and beat him until he cried, and videotaped it all for his parents. As they hit the boy, over and over, she heard them say the words her own family had come to dread: "When do you want us to stop?"

As the patriarch of an extended family, and as the clear target of the kidnappers' demands, it fell to Gerardo to negotiate. He said he eventually paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom, but he would not say exactly how much.

He got his niece back in March, but the ordeal didn't end. He said the kidnappers kept calling him, threatening to kill his children if he made trouble for them, if he called the police. Once, he said, they called to let him know they were sitting outside his mother's house. They described the place to him, told him what his mother was doing just then. And they said they were going to kill her.

"You go crazy," Gerardo said. He said he bought a gun.

Then a few weeks ago he sold his Mercedes, put his house on the market and moved his family permanently to Boca Raton, Fla., unable to endure the insecurity he felt constantly in the country where he was born. His niece is now studying architecture in Florida and his children are in school there.

"I can't live here anymore," said Gerardo, 45, a fit and trim marathon runner, as he sat among boxes in his Mexico City office on the day before he left. "We have to change our lives. I have a 5-year-old boy. I can't risk him."

He said the businesses he built over a lifetime, manufacturing and selling auto parts and selling real estate, will surely go bankrupt and his 35 employees will lose their jobs. He said he would try to manage his businesses from Florida and with discreet return trips every few months. But he said they require more hands-on management than that, and that the kidnappers have forced him into ruin.

He said he spent $150,000 to hire two private investigators to look into his case, and they told him his niece was abducted by a well-organized gang led by state and local police officers. They were too well-connected and too organized to fight, he concluded. "You can buy anyone with the money they are making," he said.

They have taunted him on the phone, telling him, "You will never catch us, we know too much," he recalled. And they did know a lot. "They taped our phone conversations about two or three months before the kidnapping and replayed them for us. They checked our property records, they knew about our cars and houses. They did an inventory. They said, 'Tell your mother to sell her condo to pay the ransom.' "

Gerardo said he was angry, that he would like to kill someone. But he said the forces against him were too strong to fight, so his only option was to run. He has never reported the case to the police.

"You work, you study, you get married, have kids, a life, stability," he said. "I was going to stay here always. But now we and our money are leaving Mexico."

High Cost to Victims

Pedro Fletes Renteria, director of a private school in Mexico City, was kidnapped as he arrived for work at 6 a.m. on March 1, 2001. Masked men with pistols forced him into a car and put him facedown on the floor with a gun to his neck. He was held for 59 days.

Fletes said he was kept for most of that time in a five-foot-square closet, with a bucket to use as a toilet. He was allowed to bathe every three days. Outside, he could hear children playing, families having parties -- the sounds of Mexico City's warm springtime.

Fletes, 54, said the kidnappers knew everything about him, including his children's names and his schedule. He said the only thing they didn't seem to understand was his business: Their $5 million ransom demand was more than the school's total worth.

"I felt every emotion you can imagine, in cycles: anguish, desperation, thinking badly of my family, thinking I would die, crying," said Fletes, whose face is soft and round beneath a salt-and-pepper beard. "It was so inhumane."

After almost two months, after his family paid a ransom he won't disclose, the kidnappers drove him to a busy downtown intersection and let him out. They gave him back the suit he was wearing on the day he was taken. It had been cleaned and pressed.

Fletes said the kidnapping nearly broke him financially. He said his wife, five daughters and a son spent thousands of dollars for bodyguards and armored cars after he was kidnapped. After he was released, he hired a team of bodyguards to protect him for several months.

"But I got rid of all that," he said, tapping the desk with his hands, which flutter around him constantly like nervous birds. "It was too expensive, and I didn't want to live that way."

The costs to his school, which runs from elementary grades through high school, continue. Since his kidnapping, he has paid more than $18,000 to install a closed-circuit television security system and motion-sensing alarms. He pays more than $5,500 a month for security measures he never took before, including new guards at the doors and new identification cards and security procedures for his 1,200 students.

He said he'd rather spend that money for a new language laboratory, paint for the school's cracked yellow walls and upgrades to the school's 40 outdated computers.

"If we didn't have to spend so much for security now," he said, "we could make everything here better."

Investing in Security

Companies in Mexico pay dearly to protect themselves because the government doesn't. Analysts said big companies typically spend between 5 percent and 15 percent of their annual budgets on security -- sometimes $2 million or more.

In a country where more than 54 million people -- more than half the population -- live on less than $4.50 a day, business leaders said their heavy spending on security represents lost jobs and lost opportunities.

"Instead of investing in security, they could be investing in new factories or new lines of products," said Javier Prieto de la Fuente, president of Concamin, Mexico's Industrial Chamber of Commerce. "When you are dealing with global markets, even 1 percent is important. We are losing our competitive edge because of these concerns."

While many parts of Mexico are relatively safe from the kidnapping epidemic, problems are severe in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puebla and U.S. border areas where much of the nation's manufacturing is located. Many Japanese executives at factories near the border are forbidden by their companies to drive in private cars. Buses with armed guards carry Japanese executives between their homes in the San Diego suburbs and their factories around Tijuana.

Foreign companies pay premiums -- the equivalent of hazard pay -- to lure top executives to Mexico. Foreign and Mexican firms often must buy kidnapping insurance for their top corporate officers. The problem is severe enough that a company here has begun offering surgical implants of devices that could help locate people using satellite technology, although as of recently it had no takers.

Few, if any, companies have left the country strictly over security concerns, as Mexico is simply too big and attractive a market to abandon. Foreign direct investment continues to grow, but many here say kidnappings and other crimes are a key reason Mexico's economy has not grown faster.

Kidnapping has become so common that Fox mentioned it prominently in his annual state of the nation address this month. Crime analysts say the federal government's new elite anti-kidnapping unit is an important step. But even Fox conceded that wiping out the "scourge" of insecurity was still "an outstanding debt to our citizens."

'We Don't Trust the Police'

Fletes said he never wanted the police involved in his case.

"We don't trust the police, and we want to protect our families," he said. "I know of two other kidnapping cases right now, and neither of them has been reported."

But he said that at the moment he was kidnapped, one of the kidnappers fired shots -- perhaps as a warning. That caused so much commotion that police came, and an investigation was started.

Fletes said the Federal Preventative Police was the lead agency in the investigation. But Fletes said his brother negotiated directly with the kidnappers, without any police involvement, and eventually paid the ransom himself.

Once Fletes was returned, the search for the kidnappers was turned over to the Mexico City attorney general's office, which has a special unit dedicated to kidnapping investigations.

"I can say they are very friendly, but not very effective," Fletes said. "I think their attitude is that once the victim is returned, the case is solved."

His own private investigators turned up evidence that top Mexico City police officers might have been involved in the case. Fletes's attorney, Jose Antonio Ortega, a prominent lawyer who heads the security committee of Coparmex, said telephone records show that the cell phone used by the kidnappers was also used to make calls to the home of a top official from the department's anti-kidnapping unit.

Jesus Jimenez Granados, head of the attorney general's anti-kidnapping unit, said he investigated the claims and found no evidence that the police had been involved. But he said the officers suspected of involvement had been transferred to another unit anyway. He said that on a matter as delicate as kidnapping investigations, police and investigators had to be totally beyond suspicion.

"People have to trust us," said Jimenez, a stocky bull of a man in a suit made for someone taller. "We think we're giving citizens results and earning their trust."

Jimenez said his office received 149 complaints of kidnappings last year and solved 70 percent of them. Jimenez also said police had a suspect in custody who may have been involved in Fletes's kidnapping. "It's about to be resolved completely," he said.

But Fletes remained skeptical, and scared. Sitting in his office, just a few feet from the street where he was kidnapped, Fletes said the police officers he suspects were involved in his kidnapping could "come back at any time."

Fletes said Fox's election two years ago was a positive sign, and that some things are beginning to change. But he said Mexico is still a land too often governed more by force and intimidation than by laws. He said his nephew had been "express kidnapped" this month by abductors who held him for a few hours and forced him to withdraw money with his ATM card -- a common crime in Mexico City that is almost never solved.

"We've had a political transition," Fletes said. "But Mexico still needs a transition of justice."