Mexico City: The new kidnap capital of the world

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The Independent US

Leaning back in a chair in his Mexico City office, systems analyst Roberto Garcia winces as he remembers the phone calls. The commands were simple. "Pick up the receiver by the second ring or we will beat your nephew until he bleeds. Fail to make the ransom demand and we will send him back to you in pieces."

Leaning back in a chair in his Mexico City office, systems analyst Roberto Garcia winces as he remembers the phone calls. The commands were simple. "Pick up the receiver by the second ring or we will beat your nephew until he bleeds. Fail to make the ransom demand and we will send him back to you in pieces."

Scooped off the streets of the Mexican capital as he went out for a hamburger near his home in the modest Iztapalapa neighbourhood, the youngster was held bound and blindfolded for five weeks. Threatened, abused and alone as his family scrabbled to pull together 1m peso (around £50,000) ransom, the middle-class Garcia family were thrown into a terrifying new world - but one that is becoming ever-more familiar to Mexicans.

"We thought that we wouldn't be vulnerable to kidnapping because we don't have the kind of money they ask for," says the soft-spoken 64-year-old as he recalls the ordeal. "Now the poor, the middle-income and the rich are all being targeted. Kidnapping has become an industry."

In a recent report, international risk consultants Kroll Inc estimated that some 3,000 people were victims of kidnapping in Mexico last year - around 20 times the number actually reported to the country's notoriously corrupt police force - placing the fast-modernizing nation of 100 million people second only to strife-torn Colombia in the global kidnapping league.

In June, the wave of abductions triggered the largest street demonstrations seen for a decade in Mexico which in turn led to the resignation of the country's public security minister. The kidnaps also form the chilling backdrop to Man on Fire, a fast-paced thriller by British director Tony Scott that premiere's across the UK next month.

While abductions are rife throughout the country, Mexico's vast capital bears the brunt. The largest city in Latin America with 20 million residents, smog-choked Mexico City is ringed by a dizzying labyrinth of cinder-block slums and has an urban sprawl that covers an area twice the size of Greater London - few taxi drivers claim to know more than half of its streets. The city is also home to 18 well-organised kidnap gangs that have an ever-broader range of carefully chosen victims.

Drawing on a range of conspirators including policemen, bank clerks, domestic servants and security guards at residential blocks across the capital, these gangs work up a detailed profile of their victims that enables them to choose a window of opportunity for the kidnap and set a realistic ransom. Whereas abductions were once cyclical, analysts say the activity now forms a year-round "war without quarter".

"It used to be that kidnappings would pick up just before holidays such as Mother's Day, Christmas and Holy Week because the criminals needed the money to party," says Max Morales, a Mexico City security analyst who is widely regarded as one of the country's foremost authorities on kidnapping. "But we started this year freeing two people on 4 January and there is no longer any respite."

The ransom market is thought to be worth in excess of $100m (£56m) a year. This huge pot is now also luring a range of opportunistic criminals from across Mexico City and beyond. The emerging gangs are less business oriented and more emotional than their predecessors and, as a result, more violent.

Since the beginning of 1996, Mexican kidnappers have shot, stabbed and strangled over 160 of their hostages, with more than half of the fatalities occurring during a surge of criminal activity in the past three years. In one recent case that sickened crime-weary Mexicans, two young brothers were shot dead and their bodies tossed in a skip even after their parents paid a $600,000 (£335,000) ransom.

Another case in July involved the kidnap and murder of Mexico's 1997 Woman of the Year, Carmen Gutierrez. A highly regarded specialist in rehabilitative medicine, Gutierrez was snatched as she left her smart apartment complex. Her abductors became jittery during negotiations, strangled her and tossed her body in a sewage canal on the city's outskirts. Then, noticing that she was still alive, they held her head under the water until she stopped breathing.

Most in Mexico find it difficult to conceive of anyone being capable of such brutality. Some clues as to what types of people the kidnappers might be came in a recent profile of six gang leaders that was leaked by the AFI - Mexico's equivalent of the FBI - to the newspaper Reforma. The profile showed them to be long-term offenders with a history of crimes including assault, robbery, extortion and murder, who had spent years in the brutal prison system.

Rounded up in separate swoops during the first half of the year, these mafia leaders had nicknames common in the Latin American underworld, including El Alacran and El Duende - The Scorpion and The Goblin - and liked to spend the freely flowing ransom money on baubles including white-gold watches and fast motorbikes. They were also armed with weapons including Uzi submachine guns, fancy Beretta, Colt and Taurus pistols and AK-47 assault rifles - known in gangland slang as the " cuerno de chivo" or "goat horn" because of its distinctive curved ammunition clip.

As in Scott's film, the Santa Muerte death cult also figured large in their stories. The scythe-wielding figurine of Our Lady of Death is revered by gangsters, thieves and prostitutes in the capital's crime-ridden Tepito neighbourhood who call on her for protection. Spurned by the Catholic Church, the cult has spilled out of the barrio and now counts policemen and politicians among its tattooed and talisman-wearing devotees, and has chapters as far away as Los Angeles.

The kidnappers do not work alone. Victims' testimonies routinely include accounts of "arrests" by uniformed police officers who have used their squad cars to pull over intended targets. Among those charged for several recent abductions are current and former employees of the various branches of the federal and municipal forces. In June, a group of elite officers was detained after abducting a businessman with the aid of false arrest warrants.

In a bid to cover their tracks and protect one another, corrupt, high-ranking officers band together in a secret group called La Hermandad - The Brotherhood. La Hermandad links the underworld gangs of the city's shantytowns to the upper echelons of the authorities, who profit from criminal endeavours ranging from drug trafficking to extortion.

"What you have to understand," says Morales, as we talk in his offices high above the thrumming traffic of the capital's smart Colonia del Valle district, "is that police corruption is not just a matter of taking bribes to turn a blind eye but of policeman who are active kidnappers. What's worse is that people charged with cracking the corruption continue to tolerate it."

So real is the fear of high-level corruption in law-enforcement circles that Mexico's attorney general, Raphael Macedo, recently had microchips implanted beneath the skin of 160 top federal prosecutors and investigators to ensure access to a highly sensitive new crime database that went live last month was secure. The devices, manufactured by the Florida-based VeriChip Corp, carry unique identification codes to foil attempts by impostors trying to gain access to the network.

While Mexico's law-enforcement community struggles to combat the corruption that threatens it from within, wealthy Mexicans are going to ever-greater lengths to protect themselves, turning to the private security companies piling into a booming market now worth hundreds of millions of pounds each year. It is estimated that up to 1,000 firms are currently offering security services, ranging from those supplying baton-toting guards to shopping malls, to a dozen or so companies that offer top-of-the-range VIP protection packages. The most comprehensive deals on offer include risk-assessment services, employee screening and crisis management - shorthand for kidnap negotiation in a worst-case scenario.

Also popular are armoured cars. The leading specialist in this market, O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt, pegs the number of companies offering top-flight vehicle armour in the Mexican capital at 50, almost double the number five years ago. Piling state-of-the-art materials - including Kevlar, aramid fibres, blast- and bulletproof steels, and 2.1mm-thick ballistic glass - into the bodies of luxury European and American cars, is a $28m-a-year (£16m) industry in Mexico.

But with the simplest armour starting at $20,000 (£11,000), and the cost of providing armed guards for a family of four at $50,000 (£28,000) a year, protection is out of the reach of most Mexico City residents, four of whom are kidnapped on average each day. A further 70 or so a day, meanwhile, are snatched off the streets in what are known as "express" kidnappings, where criminals (often lurking among the city's taxi cabs) force their victims to withdraw money from their bank accounts before releasing them.

In late June, up to a million demonstrators dressed in white packed the streets of the city to demand government action in the biggest protest that the country had witnessed in more than a decade. The march, which filled the city's eight-lane Reforma thoroughfare from gutter to gutter, later claimed the scalp of Public Security Minister Alejandro Gertz, who stepped down in the face of such strong criticism.

"The rally's success didn't surprise me as crime is now one of Mexicans' greatest worries, although it may have taken some politicians by surprise," says march organiser Fernando Schutte from the office of his family estate agency in the city's colonial San Angel district. "Public security is the state's primary reason for being, and if it isn't providing it, then you have to go out and demand it. I don't want to hear speeches, I want to see results," he adds.

While Mexico's law enforcement and justice system is choked by corruption and a lack of resources that frustrates the best of political intentions, even the most severely tested in the crime-blighted capital share Schutte's steadfast conviction that the police and criminal-justice system must be made to work.

Among them is accountant Eduardo Gallo, whose 25-year-old daughter, Paola, was snatched four years ago by a kidnap gang and shot dead despite the prompt payment of a ransom. Facing indifference from prosecutors, Gallo singlehandedly tracked down Paola's killers in an 11-month manhunt that took him right up to the US border. Although there were moments when Gallo may have considered exacting his own brand of justice, in the end he simply handed the kidnappers over to the courts.

"It wasn't so much that I had the faith or confidence that the system of justice would work, but the alternative was to kill them," he says. "My parents brought me up with respect for the law, for society and for people's lives, and these were the values that I had passed on to my own children. I couldn't simply throw that aside when faced with a problem."

'Man on Fire' opens on 8 October

EXPRESS KIDNAPPING: Maria Jose Cuevas, graphic designer, 32

Cuevas was pulling up outside her home (where she agreed to be photographed here) in the capital's fashionable La Condesa neighbourhood on a quiet Sunday evening in late spring. As she parked her VW, she felt the presence of a man nearby.

"I turned and saw that he had a pistol. He told me to get in the back of the car, then two more men got in: one up front accompanying the driver, and one in the back with me. All three were about 20 years old and had guns.

"The situation was desperate. I had a pistol pressed into my ankle and another stuck into my ribs. You are in your own space, your car, but you don't have control over it or anything else. Outside, you see life going on as if nothing was happening, and you can't call for help.

"My father is one of the most famous painters in Mexico - Jose Luis Cuevas - and at first I didn't know whether it was a kidnap that would last several days and end in a ransom demand, or if it was a so-called express kidnapping that would last just a couple of hours. But when they asked who my family was, I started to calm down a little as it looked like it was just random.

"They asked for my bank card, and they drove to three or four ATMs to withdraw cash. By sheer luck I only had 10,000 pesos (around £500). I told them to check the balance, and they believed I didn't come from a rich family.

"After they got the money, they carried on driving around and I got very anxious about where they were taking me. They hurl every kind of cliché at you to frighten you. They tell you you are going to sleep in a cellar - like a proper kidnap. They say they are going to take you out on to the highway, implying that they are going to kill or rape you.

"Inside I was dying of fright, but I was chatting to them and outwardly very calm. I was telling them how the situation in Mexico was very difficult, and that I didn't agree with robbery or hold-ups but I understood why they did it. I was becoming their accomplice.

"After about three hours, they decided to let me go. They parked up in a dark street. When everyone else had got out of the car, the driver reached out and squeezed my shoulder. He stayed looking right into my eyes for a few seconds. It was a little moment in which I felt like he was both trying to ask me to forgive him and thanking me."

KIDNAPPED BY POLICE: Miguel Castillo, marketing director, 35

Castillo was leaving the bakery he worked at in the capital's Barranca del Muerto district at around 9.30pm on a spring evening when he found the path to his Volkswagen GTI blocked by a federal police squad car.

"The police forced me to get out of my car, saying that it was stolen. Three or four officers then threw me face down into the back of the car and put their feet on top of me. They drove off with the radio turned on loud so that I couldn't figure out where I was going. I still don't know which route they followed.

"They handed me over to some civilians who held me captive in a safe house. I was stripped naked and placed in a completely dark room with a cement floor. They tied my left hand to a concrete post with wire, and left me there for five nights and six days.

"Their mistreatment was systematic. They didn't feed me. They beat me frequently, and they told me they were going to kill me. It was a psychological game. When they came for me, they always shoved a torch right in my face so that I couldn't identify them. You feel complete impotence as your life depends entirely on your kidnappers' attitude and moods.

"I had to identify my family and give them their details. It wasn't until the fifth day that they finally got in touch with them. My family was going frantic with worry as they had no idea where I was. They paid a ransom [he declines to say how much] and I was put back into the boot of my car and taken for a drive.

"They left me in the countryside in Morelos state - adjacent to Mexico City. After the sound of voices had receded, I began to call for help. A farmer heard me and helped me to climb out through the back seats. I went to a nearby house and used the phone to call my mother.

"It has left me with a lot of anger because of the situation they put my family in. If I lost a family member or a friend in a kidnapping, I would want to take revenge."

KIDNAPPED IN HIS OWN HOME: Jose Cohen, television producer, 34

Cohen was relaxing at home with his wife and three young children when he got a call from work. A colleague needed a telephone number, so he took the lift (which he returned to for the photo you see here) down from his 10th-floor apartment in the capital's swanky Polanco district to fetch his laptop from his car.

"When I pushed the elevator door open, a 9mm pistol was pointing in my face. I was told to close my eyes and look down at the floor, and I just remember seeing a bunch of feet walking into the elevator, at least four of five people. They took me back up to my apartment. It was a kidnap in my own home.

"They took us all into the bedroom where the shower was still on, and they tied my wife and me up. They just said to us, 'Keep cool and nothing is going to happen.' The kids were with us and the little one was crying for his bottle, so that was a little difficult.

"At first it was very frightening as they were very threatening. They said things like 'You son of a bitch' and 'If you open your eyes, I'll kill you.' But we were lucky because that particular day I had gone to change a cheque as I had to make some payments at the office the following day. I had around $3,000 (£2,000) in my pocket and I gave it to them immediately.

"We are not a Rolex family, so they took my wallet, my wife's jewellery, some antique watches inherited from my grandfather and my DVD player and our mobile phones. They were constantly talking on mobile phones, and only later did we realise they had taken over the whole building and were talking to accomplices in other apartments.

"After a couple of hours, they left, telling us not to do anything for 45 minutes. I put a chair against the elevator door, which was silly, and turned off the shower. At the end of the day they told me that if we took it easy and played along with their game, they wouldn't hurt us, and that was the most important thing for me, obviously, as I just wanted to protect my family.

"Only later when I checked the call log of my wife's mobile phone did I discover that the kidnappers had used it to call one particular number 17 times. I started to do my own investigation, but then decided to drop it. If you live in a place where there is no rule of law, then it's pretty damn scary to go ahead and do something on your own."