No Help for Mexico's Kidnapping Surge

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Gregory Bull / AP

People pass a billboard calling for help to find a man who was kidnapped in Mexico City.

Mexico's leftist opposition may denounce the administration of President Felipe Calderón as a government of the rich, but the rich are not so sure. In fact, they're rapidly losing confidence in the state's ability to ensure their physical safety. And the reasons for their skepticism were made clear in the recent kidnapping and murder of a 14-year-old and the arraignment of two police officers in the case.

A week ago, the decomposed body of Fernando Martí, son of the Mexican businessman Alejandro Martí, who last year sold his chain of fitness clubs for $562 million, was found inside the trunk of a parked car in Mexico City. Near the body was a note, which read, "For not paying, yours truly La Familia." The boy had been asphyxiated more than a month earlier, having been kidnapped some 53 days previously when the armored vehicle in which he was being driven was stopped at what appeared to be a checkpoint of the AFI, Mexico's Federal Agency of Investigations. The kidnappers wore AFI uniforms and insignia, according to information revealed to police by a bodyguard who survived to tell the tale. The body of the driver had been sent to the family soon after the snatch to demonstrate the seriousness of the kidnappers.

But the note left with Fernando Martí's body lied: His family had paid a ransom of more than $2 million. And after the money was handed over, they heard nothing, so they went to the offices of the attorney general and the secretary of public security, as well as to President Calderón. Heads rolled: the deputy attorney general in charge of investigating organized crime was reassigned, while the attorney general and the secretary of public security had a very public fight during a Security Cabinet meeting, each blaming the other for the deteriorating security situation in the country. According to the newspaper Reforma, last year there were some 438 kidnappings in Mexico. But the secretary for public security has revealed that this year's figures so far show an 80% increase. And those are only reported kidnappings — Mexico's Human Rights Commission believes that fewer than one in three kidnappings are ever reported to the authorities, because so many Mexicans have little confidence in a law-enforcement system riddled with criminal elements.

The AFI is the Mexican federal agency tasked with investigating kidnappings, but since so many of its members have been implicated in criminal acts, victims have little confidence in its ability to protect them. Fernando Martí, after all, was taken at what appeared to be an AFI checkpoint. Amid the public outrage generated by the case, the local authorities in Mexico City suspended all law-enforcement checkpoints in the city. Two of the three suspects arraigned in the case were active-duty policemen, one of them reportedly a senior figure in the force.

Mexicans have come to see police corruption and complicity in crime as a way of life. Last week, an entire family was found murdered in Jalisco, in what state authorities say was a botched kidnapping involving a policeman serving in an anti-kidnapping unit. Says Alejandro Gertz Manero, Dean of the University of the Americas and a former attorney general, "There is a collusion of the criminals with the police, and what is the worst is that there is impunity — 99% of the cases go unsolved. So there is only a 1% chance of being caught, and even then, probably remaining free, because the local prosecutors are also corrupt."

For wealthier Mexicans, and even those not so wealthy, kidnapping has become an everyday reality. According to sources monitoring the situation, there are currently dozens of families negotiating for the return of kidnapped loved ones. Most families respond to a kidnapping by sending an interlocutor to negotiate with the kidnappers — the millionaire may engage a high-end private security firm; the market vendor may send a cousin — and then pay a ransom.

The preponderance of kidnapping and the general perception that the police cannot be trusted are symptoms of the breakdown of Mexican law enforcement in the face of a highly militarized narco-trafficking industry with billions of dollars to splash on buying loyalty. That, combined with a media culture that has drawn increasing attention to the lifestyles of the country's élite amid a deteriorating economy, has meant that wealth in Mexico today carries with it a heavy burden of anxiety.

"The rich should be more careful," warns National University social science professor Carlos Gallego, referring to a plethora of magazines that depict a free-spending lifestyle of "polo and yacht clubs, exclusive parties, cars, horses and trips," a lifestyle he says is "unattainable for 98% of the Mexican population in a country where more than 42% live under the poverty line." He is careful to make clear that this lifestyle is not in itself a reason for the increase in kidnappings, but he argues that it is another factor of the social discontent that contributes to the breakdown of institutions in Mexico.

The victims of the kidnapping surge see little hope of the government turning things around anytime soon. At the Martí funeral last Sunday, expressions of anger, fear and impotence were the norm. Alfredo Harp, who had been kidnapped by a leftist guerrilla group in the early '90s before being freed after the payment of a ransom said by family sources to be more than $50 million, stood next to the bereaved father, as did a number of other kidnapping victims from the business community. The talk in this community is increasingly focused on taking matters into their hands in the face of government ineffectiveness.

A business leader who survived a kidnapping and asked not to be named told TIME: "What are we to do? Get the Israelis as bodyguards? Somebody else was mentioning using American Special Forces, as they are being demobilized and are more serious. Do we have to have our own paramilitary forces? We have to be organized, as the government obviously is not. I am sending my family to the U.S." His sentiments are common in gatherings of the wealthy, where options under discussion range from emigration to buying a smaller house and less ostentatious car — and, of course, investing more heavily in private security.