Mexican fury grows at kidnappings

Abaskidnappings - August 12 2008, 3:41 PM

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Mexico City

The kidnapping and murder of a 14-year-old boy has caused national outrage in Mexico.

Federal officers take part in a practice rescue mission

Fernando Marti was abducted in June. His decomposed body was found in the boot of a car in Mexico City this month, even though his family had reportedly paid a ransom.

The murder of the teenager, who belonged to a wealthy family that co-owns Mexico's largest chain of sports stores, was shocking enough in itself.

But the impact of his death was compounded by the news that a number of police officers, including a police commander, have been arrested in connection with the case.

Television, radio, newspapers and the internet have been filled with people's reactions to Fernando's killing.

The emotions expressed recall four years ago when Mexico saw huge marches amid a similar sense of insecurity provoked by rising crime.

A new demonstration is already planned for later this month, with tens of thousands expected to attend.

'Repugnant excuses'

Jose Antonio Ortega, president of the Ya Basta (Enough is Enough) organisation, spoke for many when he said: "Yet again, [we see] police officers implicated in abductions and other atrocious crimes, repugnant excuses and lies from ministry officials and prosecutors, and the fake consternation and empty promises of governors and politicians."

His comments have resonance because they enforce two widely-held views here. First, that crime is endemic.

And second, that the country's various police forces are deeply corrupt.

Fernando Marti's death is not just a personal tragedy for his family.

It has become a political issue as well. Either I could risk a few scratches by jumping out of the car, or I would go with them. I chose to jump

'Adriana'
Kidnap victim

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has been forced to get involved, having come to office two years ago with a promise of putting law and order at the top of his policy agenda.

He and the Mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard (himself a possible contender for the presidency next time round) have both denied that failings in the various police forces and a lack of co-ordination between them were to blame for the outcome of Fernando Marti's kidnapping.

But that does not impress many people here, especially so soon after another police debacle in June, when 12 people were crushed to death in a botched police raid on a Mexico City night club.

The two men have come to verbal blows over which forces of law and order are better organised and more effective against the kidnappers.

In truth, neither can boast much success.

According to Mexico's National Public Security office, there have been at least 8,416 kidnappings between 1994 and March of this year. Many go unreported, the families involved hiring their own negotiators to deal with the gangs in private.

President Calderon has proposed tougher sentences for kidnappers

Some reports suggest as many as 435 people were abducted last year, a 35% increase on 2006, although official figures suggest the number is closer to 134.

More chilling, 59 people, including Fernando Marti, have been murdered by kidnappers in the two years since President Calderon came to power.

Most of those abducted are aged between 16 and 30 and the average ransom demand has been for $1.4m (£730,000).

'Express kidnappings'

Kidnapping has become as organised as the country's other insidious crime activity, drug smuggling.

And now many people believe the two are linked.

As President Calderon has increased pressure on the drug cartels by deploying thousands of troops against them, it appears some of those gangs are turning to kidnapping to supplement their illicit incomes.

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As Miguel Angel Granados Chapa, a commentator for the Mexican daily Reforma, put it: "The growth of the number of kidnappings comes from the success of the government's battle against drug dealers.

It's because of this that they are forced to diversify their illegal activities."

Whereas the 2,000 or so drug-related murders this year do not generally raise much concern among the public, kidnappings do.

And not just high-profile ones either.

Many people here can relate their own experiences of something that has been called "express" kidnappings.

These are the opportunistic random abductions from the street, where people are driven or frogmarched to cash machines and forced to empty their accounts.

It is impossible to know exact numbers.

One victim who is too frightened to use her real name - let's call her Adriana - arrived home one night and was putting her house key in the lock when the barrel of a gun appeared over her shoulder.

Her abductor forced her back into her own car and drove off.

"I was petrified.

There was nothing I could do but climb in," says Adriana.

She was driven around for a while, time enough for Adriana to come to a decision.

"Either I could risk a few scratches by jumping out of the car, or I would go with them. I chose to jump."

So Adriana opened the door and leapt out, suffering cuts but getting to safety.

"I still cannot believe the experience," she says. "It was simply a nightmare."

Her abductor crashed the car in the confusion and was arrested by police.

Punishment

With the rise in kidnappings have come calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty for offenders.

Others say people should have the right to carry guns.

Mr Calderon last week proposed life sentences for police or former officers convicted of kidnapping, for those who abduct children or when the victim is tortured or killed.

The public prosecutor has ruled out reinstating capital punishment, not least because Mexico has often resisted extraditing criminals to the US on the grounds that they might face the death penalty.

Politically, that makes it hard for the government to back-track on that for home-grown criminals.

But such demands help convey the sense of anger and frustration among the people of Mexico, especially those in the bigger cities, about this subject.

One full-page newspaper advert appeared in the wake of the Fernando Marti case and captured the mood here.

It was paid for by the former head of Mexico's biggest bank Banamex, Alfredo Harp Helu, who was himself kidnapped for six months.

"A change is needed urgently," it read. "Impotence is invading civil society.

Let's unite to ask our authorities to fight crime, and for personal security."

He spoke for many who feel at risk and who believe the authorities are failing in their primary duty of protecting their citizens

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