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Outwitting the Outlaws

EARLY EVERY MORNING, wealthy Mexican entrepreneur José Sánchez—not his real name—would visit his elderly father for coffee. They would chat for a while, and then the younger Sánchez would drive to his office nearby. This was a routine that he had followed religiously for years. It would also be his downfall.

Sánchez had built a successful business as a distributor of various Mexican consumer products, including a popular brand of beer. In 2003, he built a new warehouse that would become a distribution hub for his products. He gave an interview to a local newspaper, which published an article about the new logistics center.

The article attracted the attention of a group of kidnappers. They noticed that Sánchez, while not well known nationally, was wealthy. He had financed the $10 million investment with cash. Furthermore, he had no security detail and followed a predictable daily routine. He lived in a small town about one hour’s drive north of Mexico City. The kidnappers began monitoring his movements and soon realized that the ideal time to snatch him would be early in the morning as he left his father’s house.

Sánchez’s office was burglarized one night, probably just after the kidnappers had begun clandestinely monitoring his movements. The thieves were probably more interested in viewing his business and financial records to confirm his value as a target than in taking objects of value. Sánchez paid the robbery little attention at the time. Even in the small town where he lived, crime was so common that a simple burglary was scarcely worth reporting to the police.

One morning a few weeks later, Sánchez was abducted as he left his father’s house. He was blindfolded, bound, and driven to an unknown location. His captors kept him in a windowless room. They avoided any personal contact with him.

They blasted deafening heavy rock into his cell for hours. To further disorient him, the kidnappers brought his meals at irregular intervals and shone bright lights into his cell at night to stop him from sleeping.

“Obviously, these guys were professionals,” says Felix Batista, a consultant for ASI Global, a Houston-based risk management company, who worked with the family. “Their purpose was to break him and make him sign a ‘confession’ that he was involved in drug trafficking which they could use to blackmail the family. Incredibly, he held out for weeks and weeks,” Batista says.

Exasperated, the kidnappers began torturing him with electric cables. Finally, Sánchez signed.

The kidnappers had already called the family to demand a $1 million ransom. Batista recalls that the negotiation was confusing, since the kidnappers seemed to be using two sets of callers to contact the family.

Eventually, the wife and brother-in-law agreed to pay a $1 million ransom, even though they had not received conclusive proof that Sánchez was even alive. The kidnappers took the money but did not release Sánchez.

The family members realized that they had both been tricked but not by the group holding Sánchez. What had happened was that another group had found out about the negotiations with the abductors and had convinced the family to hand the money over to them instead of to the real kidnappers.

After a tense period of silence, the talks resumed but this time with Batista advising the family. He suspected that the fake kidnappers were rogue police officers. He told family members to stop using their phones, which he believed the police had tapped. They communicated using heavily encrypted e-mails and a secure Internet telephone connection instead.

He appointed Sánchez’s sister María as the family’s negotiator. Batista set up a makeshift crisis center at her home. He demanded proof that Sánchez was still alive; the kidnappers scanned written statements from him and e-mailed them to María. They sent DVDs of Sánchez to prove he was alive and in their power.

Gradually, the family and kidnappers established a level of trust, but the negotiations dragged on for months. During that time, Batista insisted that María exercise, eat regular meals, and try to sleep properly. “Felix even cooked for us sometimes,” she says. “It’s important not to lose hope or get depressed, because you need to keep strong to help.”

Batista suspected that the kidnappers had political as well as financial motivations. They claimed to belong to a previously unknown group called México Bárbaro. Their intermediary was a Catholic priest. Batista thinks they were linked to a left-wing Mexican political party.

María, with Batista advising her, convinced the kidnappers to drop their ransom demand to $300,000. Eventually, they struck a deal. The kidnappers dispatched the priest to Mexico City to pick up the ransom payment, and Sánchez was released. Although he had lost weight and was psychologically disoriented, he was in good physical condition.

Trends. Apart from being conned into paying twice, there is little about the Sánchez family’s ordeal that is particularly different from the torment that thousands of other Mexican families go through every year when a relative is kidnapped. Mexico does not keep reliable official crime statistics, so it is hard to know how widespread kidnappings are, which social group is being targeted, or whether abductions are becoming more common. Anecdotal evidence suggests that kidnapping in Mexico is booming, fueled by impunity, police inefficiency and corruption, and a drug war raging between rival gangs and law enforcement.

Kidnapping is more common in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, than almost anywhere else in the world, says an analyst at a London-based security consultancy. The analyst says, “Kidnappings are certainly more common in Mexico than they were, say, five years ago. We are getting more calls to advise on protection and to negotiate the release of victims.”

The firm’s Mexico City office would get perhaps 10 calls a month in 2002, says the analyst. Now it gets about three times that number.

“This is a low-risk, high-return activity,” says a senior Mexican federal-law-enforcement official who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. He says that every day, about two to three people are kidnapped in Mexico City and about 10 are abducted daily elsewhere in Mexico, mainly in the northern border regions where drug cartels are powerful. Just 2 percent of kidnappings are ever solved, he estimates.

Kidnapping has long been a business much like any other criminal enterprise. Abductors seek low-risk, high-return targets. But now the kidnapping market is shifting. Wealthy people are no longer easy targets. They surround themselves with guards, ride in armored vehicles, vary their routines, and use sophisticated security systems. Kidnappers have reacted by moving down market to target Mexico’s emerging middle classes.

Professionals, business executives, and entrepreneurs are far more numerous than the super-rich, presenting kidnappers with a greater number of relatively easy targets. Although payouts from middle class victims rarely go beyond $30,000 to $50,000, criminals hold them for shorter periods of time than millionaires.

“These guys want turnover,” says Batista. “They have to make their numbers, and they can do it more easily by holding more people for shorter time periods.”

Express kidnappings, in which criminals hold their victims for a few hours, long enough for them to withdraw money from ATMs, have soared. While the take is lower than in a conventional abduction— perhaps as little as a few hundred dollars—criminals can grab even more people with much less effort.

“Virtual kidnappings,” in which criminals call phone numbers at random and claim to hold a family member hostage, have declined, because people are aware of the scam potential of such calls and are more cautious about responding. These calls usually originate from inside Mexican jails, where inmates try to extort money from victims using their cellphones. If the target takes the bait, an associate on the outside picks up payment before the victim realizes that his relative was never in danger.

Foreign companies and tourists are largely exempt from the wave of kidnappings. Multinationals have learned to take care of their executives by giving them training or providing them with guards and armored cars. Most multinationals carry kidnap and ransom insurance policies for their senior executives, which cover the fees paid to professional kidnap negotiators.

“We have been doing business here and around the world for many years, so we know how to balance and manage risk,” says Rafael Eduardo Gonzales, CPP, head of security at PepsiCo in Mexico. “Concern with kidnapping is not an issue in the United States, but it is here, so we must take appropriate actions.”

Kidnappers try to avoid abducting foreigners. The language barrier makes it harder for them to manage foreign prisoners and negotiations with foreign families are unlikely to proceed as smoothly as with Mexicans, who have grown accustomed to kidnapping. Mexican police are often more motivated—usually by pressure from foreign embassies—to react to the kidnapping of a foreigner.

But foreigners sometimes become victims. An October 2007 report by the Congressional Research Service found that Mexican drug gangs had kidnapped more than 60 Americans in Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican twin city of Laredo, Texas.

The report also noted the role of corrupt officials, stating that “Mexican cartels advance their operations, in part, by corrupting or intimidating law enforcement officials. For example, Nuevo Laredo municipal police have reportedly been involved in the kidnapping of Gulf cartel competitors.”

The report said that police hand their prisoners over to the rival gang’s enforcers who “hold them for ransom or torture them for information about their drug operations.” Analysts report a similar phenomenon in the San Diego area, which is located close to Tijuana, one of Mexico’s most crime-ridden cities.

Drug gangs also see kidnapping as a lucrative addition to their main activity, according to a Mexican law enforcement official interviewed for this article. Gangs are also active in extortion, such as protection rackets. They abduct people who fail to comply with their demands.

Challenges. Violent crime—including kidnapping—is a major political issue in Mexico. “Crime is the number one issue in Mexico. It affects everyone: the poor, the middle class, the rich,” says Raúl Fraga, head of the investigative reporting unit at El Financiero, a Mexico City business newspaper.

Government response for the last 20 years has been lacking, he says, noting, “They promise a lot, but the situation keeps on getting worse.”

It has become a tradition for every incoming president to announce that combating crime is a priority, but initiatives do not go beyond fresh legislation or the creation of new elite police units that are supposedly immune to corruption, Fraga explains.

President Felipe Calderón, who took office in December 2006, followed this tradition, making crime fighting his priority. He sent thousands of federal troops to the northern states to crack down on drug gangs and restore order. He reorganized federal law-enforcement agencies.

The problem is that crime in Mexico is too deeply rooted in society to be eliminated with a few changes in policy and the appointment of a few new faces, argues Fraga. Corruption, impunity, nepotism, influence peddling, the exclusion of people from the political process, and the growing power and lethality of Mexico’s drug gangs, all make fighting crime a Herculean challenge. Kidnapping is just one piece of that large and complex puzzle.

The federal official says that the results of Calderón’s crackdown on crime have been disappointing. He says the federal police, security, and investigative services are underfunded, poorly trained, corrupt, and demoralized. An entry-level investigator with a law degree earns less than $12,000 a year, so federal positions do not attract the best minds.

Low pay exposes officials to the temptations of corruption. Further, the federal bureaucracy is deeply politicized, which inhibits merit-based promotions. The federal official says that the head of his department is a political appointee with no police experience.

Kidnapping response is a local government responsibility, but families avoid involving state or city police in abductions, because they assume officers are involved with the criminals or because they fear that the police would disrupt delicate negotiations with an inept rescue attempt.

Lessons learned. Other Latin American countries have made progress in fighting crime in general and kidnapping in particular. Colombia has made steady progress in reducing abductions. Kidnapping is still rampant, but Colombia’s Defense Ministry says reported cases of kidnapping fell 27 percent to 447 from January through June 2008.

For-profit criminals carried out 190 of these kidnappings, a decline of 30 percent. The improvement seems to be a result of the government’s successful offensive against rebel armies, which use kidnapping as a main source of revenue.

Brazil, another kidnapping hotspot, has also seen a steady reduction in violent crime and kidnapping, says Ted Goertzel, a sociology professor at Rutgers University, who has studied crime in Brazil. The state of São Paulo, the country’s wealthiest region, has seen a decline in kidnapping, because the local government has increased spending on police training, raising salaries, and fighting corruption. An improving economy has also brought more would-be criminals into the formal economy.

This does not mean that either country has eliminated kidnapping. Official statistics are imperfect and show only a part of a larger picture. However, they do reflect a general gradual improvement. The data may even underestimate the improvement, Goertzel says, because people are becoming more confident in reporting crime to the police than before.

Precautions. To avoid becoming a victim, whether in Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America, individuals should follow a few basic rules. First is to keep a low profile. Second is not to wear expensive jewelry. Third is to avoid dangerous neighborhoods and random cabs. Travelers should use only hotel cars or taxis from trusted taxi stands.

Consultants advise kidnap victims to remain calm, cooperate with their abductors, and not try to escape. Resistance can result in injury or even death. Victims should try to establish a relationship with their captors and keep a positive attitude. Kidnapping is a business transaction, which means that captors want to keep their prisoner alive and well.

Family members contacted by kidnappers should cooperate but also play for time. They should realize that initial demands for money are merely an opening gambit in a negotiation; consultants say kidnappers usually settle for about one-tenth of their initial demands. Before paying, family members are advised to get proof that their relative is alive—and is indeed held by the kidnappers.

John Barham is a former senior editor at Security Management.