Kidnappings soar in Mexico, with police often among the perpetrators

McClatchy Foreign StaffOctober 31, 2013 

— Even amid an unprecedented rash of kidnappings in Mexico, the snatching of John Jairo Guzman stood out.

Assailants shoved the 41-year-old Colombian into a waiting vehicle in broad daylight on a recent Friday. Luckily, a passerby used a cellphone to make a video and posted it on YouTube. Within days, three of the assailants were identified as Mexico City policemen.

The officers are now fugitives. Their boss, a supervisor in the internal affairs unit tasked with cleaning up police corruption, denied knowledge of the crime.

But investigators tracked the GPS trail from his radio and his vehicle, putting him at the scene as well. Another video taken by a passerby later surfaced in which the chief’s vehicle is visible at the Sept. 20 crime scene. The supervisor is now jailed. Guzman, the victim, is still missing.

Guzman’s abduction is one of 1,205 kidnappings that had been reported this year in Mexico through the end of September, marking a sharp rise in such crimes. But since the vast majority of Mexican families refuse to report abductions to authorities – in part due to fear of police involvement or dread that criminals will exact revenge for reporting the crime – experts believe the reality is far worse than the official tally.

“The problem is, I would say, almost out of control,” said Juan Francisco Torres Landa, a Harvard-trained lawyer who is secretary general of Mexico United Against Crime, a pressure group.

Not only are kidnappings becoming much more common, abduction rings slay more of their victims after they receive a ransom payment than ever before.

“The only thing they want is to get their money,” said Jose Antonio Ortega Sanchez, president of the Citizens Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, another advocacy group. Once payment is made, Ortega Sanchez said, “they just murder them.”

The spokesman for President Enrique Pena Nieto on crime issues, Eduardo Sanchez Hernandez, wasn’t available Thursday for comment, but he’s said previously that authorities have broken up 70 kidnapping rings this year, and that a TV and radio campaign of public service ads urging citizens to tip police to abductions was reaping results.

“At the end of the day, they have substantially increased reports of kidnapping and extortion in comparison to other administrations,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez noted, however, that many victims still fail to report kidnappings, and that the real level of abductions is a “black number,” or unknown.

A glimpse at the magnitude of the kidnapping surge came Sept. 30, when Mexico’s national statistics institute issued an annual report based on extensive house-to-house polling about how often citizens suffer from crime.

The survey found that just over 1 percent of those who’d suffered an abduction reported it to authorities. It estimated the number of kidnappings in the previous year to be 105,682. This includes not only lengthy abductions for ransom, but also what Mexicans term “express kidnappings,” in which victims are taken at knife- or gunpoint to ATMs and forced to withdraw cash and turn it over, usually going free after a few hours or a day.

The number also includes migrants taken hostage by organized crime as they travel toward the U.S. border and victims of “virtual kidnappings,” in which callers telephone residences, often at random. As screams erupt in the background, callers tell those answering that a child or loved one has just been snatched off the street and demand an immediate bank deposit or payoff.

“The methodology that (the statistics institute) follows is flawless,” said Torres Landa. “That number, 105,682, means that there are 12 kidnappings per hour. Twelve kidnappings per hour is credible. . . . I frankly believe it.”

Even going by official reports of those who file complaints to state and federal authorities, kidnappings are up more than 60 percent this year, Torres Landa said.

Victims range from tycoons to owners of corner businesses.

“Anybody can be kidnapped. In Guerrero (state), you’re seeing ranchers being kidnapped who only have six or eight head of cattle,” said Eduardo Gallo y Tello, who has been active on the issue since his daughter was abducted and slain 13 years ago.

Anti-crime activists lament both a sharp rise in reported kidnappings and what they say is a lack of government response to the crime wave.

“I’ve not heard a single authority raise their hand and say, ‘I’ll be responsible for this problem,’” said Francisco Rivas, head of the National Citizens Observatory, an umbrella group of civil society organizations.

Kidnappings, which arose around 1970 in Mexico, spiked in the latter part of the 1990s but then fell at the turn of the century. They began to rise again around 2007, when organized crime groups took to kidnapping as an alternative revenue source to drug trafficking, and some activists say the groups may be behind roughly half of all abductions.

Pena Nieto came to office 11 months ago promising to reduce soaring homicides, kidnapping and extortion that coincided with his predecessor’s all-out war on organized crime. In his state of the union address Sept. 2, Pena Nieto said the murder rate had dropped 13.8 percent. But the figure has been questioned, and his aides have urged Mexican media to downplay coverage of crime.

Ortega Sanchez, of the Citizens Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, accuses Pena Nieto of engaging in a coverup.

“The policy of President Pena Nieto is not to talk about (kidnappings) because this frightens investors and frightens Mexicans as well,” said Ortega Sanchez. “Mexican media believe this and have stopped talking about it.”

Even as officials trumpet new arrests of alleged kidnappers, scattered signs of involvement by corrupt police in kidnapping gangs continue.

In early October, the government announced the arrest of 13 federal police officers in Acapulco, saying they were among an 18-member criminal gang behind four kidnappings and seven murders.

“Almost always in kidnappings, there is a police officer or former police officer involved. This is indisputable,” said Isabel Miranda de Wallace, head of a group, Stop the Kidnappings, that she formed after the 2005 abduction of her 25-year-old son. A former state policeman was among those convicted in that case.

She said one of the reasons citizens are reluctant to file reports about kidnappings is the fear that some police are in cahoots with criminals.

“The victims feel vulnerable because they know that whatever they tell police goes straight to the criminals,” Miranda de Wallace said.

Another reason is that investigations rarely unfold with rigor, and prosecutions are commonly bungled, experts and activists said. Police have been known to urge victims to lie to help convict presumed kidnappers in other cases by saying they were involved in their own case.

Some 12,000 people are now in prison on charges of taking part in kidnappings, but most are lower-level members of gangs, like guards or food couriers, said Ortega Sanchez.

“They don’t catch the leaders, and they form new gangs and keep on kidnapping,” he said.

The surge in kidnappings has prompted calls for the government to designate an “anti-kidnapping czar” to force coordination among city, state and federal law enforcement agencies and increase convictions.

“With the creation of an anti-kidnapping czar, we will not see results immediately,” Alejandro Marti, father of a kidnapping victim and founder of an activist group, Mexico SOS, wrote in a column in mid-October. But over the longer term, he said, it may help “reduce this crime by a significant amount.”

Email: tjohnson@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @timjohnson4

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