Kidnap's all the rage, even those that may be faked

City Life: Mexico City
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The Independent US

Mexico has a national abduction rate averaging one every six hours, and Mexicans have grown so blasé about kidnaps that they readily cry fake when the crime varies from the industrial standard.

Ismael Rivera, a nightclub impresario, staggered up to a television studio's doors just in time for the morning's national newscast and, say local experts, made a drama out of his crisis. His face and shirt smeared with blood, Mr Rivera breathlessly told reporters how he had just escaped the clutches of abductors who had snatched him at gunpoint, abandoned his car on the street with a bullet through the windscreen, and warned him that their female boss wanted him dead. "I hid in the bushes for two hours, I don't know where, and then I ran some and I walked until I somehow found myself in front of Televisa," he said.

Mr Rivera said he had received death threats before the "kidnap" because he had started a crusade to reopen 140 city centre strip bars and lap dance joints, shut because of code violations.

Journalists, many of whom know victims who have been snatched at gunpoint and abandoned hours later after being forced to withdraw the limit on all their credit cards, branded Mr Rivera guilty of auto-sequestro, or self-kidnap.

Dolores Padierna, the borough official Mr Rivera blamed for besmirching his reputation, ridiculed his accusations and wondered aloud whether the club-owner had staged his own abduction. "It's pure theatrics, at least that's my impression," she said. The Mexico City prosecutor, Bernardo Batiz, is investigating. "The evidence is very confusing," he said. "It could have been fabricated."

Typical Latin American kidnaps are committed for cash, said Tom Cseh, a security expert for Kroll-O'Gara Associates. If the victim is kept longer than overnight, the family expects a ransom demand of anywhere from £11,000 to several millions. The record Mexico is believed to be about $30m (£20m), paid for the 1993 release of a banker, Alfredo Harp Helce.

Unless hostages resist, few are ill-treated, because they are considered a valuable commodity. Most captors are paid off quickly and relatively few cases are reported to police. In fact, underpaid Mexican officers frequently collude with these criminals and most of the assaults are in broad daylight. One neighbourhood watch scheme in the city, fed up by the authorities' failure to take action after eight abductions at the same spot in three weeks, erected banners this weekend warning passing drivers: "Danger. Express Kidnap Zone!!"

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, where kidnap has increased by 60 per cent this year, one extortion attempt was played out in front of the television cameras during a seven-hour stand-off in which a kidnapper, Fernando Dutra Pinto, made a second attempt to get money from the powerful media tycoon Silvio Santos. Days before, the same gang had snatched his daughter, Patricia, and taken £137,400 ransom for her.

Three million Brazilians watched the real-life crime show goggle-eyed and stocktrading ceased. Even the state governor Geraldo Alckmin put in a cameo appearance, with a dozen helicopters overhead. At last, Pinto agreed to release Mr Santos's wife and six daughters if doctors would remove a bullet lodged in the kidnapper's buttock. (This was a stray shot from an earlier gunfight in which two policemen died.) This second kidnap attempt was resolved without bloodshed when Pinto left in an ambulance for surgery.

Viewers found the coverage melodramatic, but all the more believable for it. "They treated me like a princess," Patricia told her father.