Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Snatch-and-Grab Economy

The Kidnapping Boom in Mexico

The armor-plated limousines, Hummers, and SUVs with conspicuously tinted windows sped into the Zocalo through the tight security cordon of thousands of police and members of the presidential military guard that ringed the great plaza. One by one, the dignitaries disembarked and were escorted by heavily armed phalanxes of personal "guaruras" or bodyguards into the bunker-like National Palace for the emergency meeting of the National Public Security Council. Despite the heavy security presence, the ambiance outside the National Public Security Summit reeked of public insecurity. 5000 victims, including many hundreds of security agents, have been slain since Felipe Calderon assumed the presidency in much-questioned 2006 elections and declared war on "organized crime." Countless numbers of citizens have been kidnapped.

Indeed, it was one more kidnapping that had goosed Calderon into summoning the titans of commerce, industry, and governance to the National Palace for the August 21 National Public Security Summit. This past June 4, uniformed Federal Investigation Agents (AFI, a bad knock-off the U.S. FBI) stopped a chauffeured BMW driving 14-year-old Fernando Marti, the son of a sporting goods tycoon, to classes at the toney British-American School. Marti's captors, who may or may not have been real AFI agents, forced the boy, his chauffer, and his bodyguard into a second car, and drove off, destination unknown.

A call that evening to young Marti's father Alejandro communicated that his son could be redeemed by paying a 5,000,000-peso ransom. Marti was advised not to inform the police. Already suspicious that the police were involved in the kidnapping, the tycoon hired a private mediator to deal with what appeared to be a vicious gang known as the "Flower Syndicate", so named because they always leave a flower in the mouth of their victims. A drop was arranged and the pesos zipped into a gym bag and placed in the rear seat of a parked car as the kidnappers had instructed.

But Fernando was not returned and the kidnappers were not heard from again. On July 31, the boy's decomposing body was found in the trunk of a parked car in the upscale Coyoacan neighborhood, not far from the pay-off site.

As is so often the case in high profile kidnappings, according to Mexico City district attorney Miguel Angel Mancera it now looks like the snatch was an inside job, prepared by the Marti family's own bodyguards.

Leery of the police, Alejandro Marti was persuaded to tell his story on primetime TV news broadcasts instead of contacting the authorities. The results were predictable: when spectacular crime has befallen the rich and famous in this crime-ridden megalopolis, Televisa and its junior partner TV Azteca, the nation's two-headed electronic media monopoly, direct their fire at the capital's left-wing government, in this case Mexico City's mayor Marcelo Ebrard, for failing to safeguard the upper crust.

The war drums pounded. Calderon publicly embraced Alejandro Marti, a heavy contributor to his 2006 election campaign, and convoked the National Public Safety Council emergency summit, urging Ebrard to attend.

The Mayor, who is convinced that Calderon stole the 2006 election from his predecessor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), has refused to recognize the right-wing Calderon and has strenuously avoided any official contact with him. But as the electronic lynch mob cranked up the barrage of recriminations, Ebrard risked breaking with AMLO and agreed to attend the August 23 security summit. Few political observers, including those affiliated with his own left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) seemed bothered that the kidnapping and murder of a young boy had been utilized to blackmail the Mayor into de facto recognition of Calderon. "They've kidnapped their consciences," AMLO supporter Berta Robledo insists.

The Grand Accord rolled out by Calderon at the summit listed 75 pledges to battle organized crime. The death penalty for kidnappers who kill their victims as proposed by the so-called Mexican Green Environmental Party was not among them (Mexico has no death penalty) but life imprisonment without possibility of release was. The laundry list also included such short-ended measures as a national identity card with biometric data (to be available in three years), a national registry of cellular phones (kidnappers use cell phones to intimidate the families of their victims), a mandatory sixth grade education for police, and prayers from the nation's pulpits for victory in Calderon's war against crime.

The National Accord for Public Safety was signed under blazing television lights by President Calderon, his security cabinet, the Secretaries of the Interior and Public Safety, the Military, the political parties, the princes of industry and commerce, media moguls, corrupt labor bosses (Elva Esther Gordillo of the National Teachers Union, Carlos Romero Deschamps, boss of the Oil Workers), the Catholic hierarchy, the Greek Orthodox bishop, representatives of the Jewish and Mormon faiths, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and various Evangelical "sects" (dixit the RC Church.)

Marcelo Ebrard signed on too, along with 31 governors - a cast of characters that featured Oaxaca's Ulysis Ruiz (accused of the murder of 26 activists during the 2006 civil rebellion in his state), Mario Marin of Puebla (accused of kidnapping journalist Lydia Cacho at the behest of a political crony), and Mexico state's Enrique Pena Nieto (responsible for the 2006 police riot at San Salvador Atenco that left two dead.)

Despite the many criminals in the National Public Security Summit audience, no one spoke out in favor of organized crime.

By a stroke of political synchronicity, the signing of the public security accord occurred at the same hour as social activist Ignacio Del Valle was being sentenced to 45 years imprisonment in nearby Texcoco, for "kidnapping" - the 45 years were tacked on to a 67 year sentence that Nacho Del Valle is currently serving in Mexico's maximum lock-up for the same "kidnapping."

Just what did this "kidnapping" consist of? In April 2006, Nacho and the other leaders of the Popular Front to Defend the Land (FPDT) sat down with Mexico state school officials to negotiate changes in the education system on the ejido of San Salvador Atenco, a poor farming community out on the dried bed of Lake Texcoco that former president Vicente Fox once tried to expropriate for a multi-billion dollar airport, before he was foiled by the courts and the campesinos' militancy.

When the school officials tried to cut the meeting short, Nacho locked the door and forced them to negotiate. Federal and state authorities charge that this constituted "kidnapping."

Speaking outside the Molino del Rey courtroom where Nacho Del Valle had just been doomed to more than a hundred years in prison, his wife Teresa declared that her husband wasn't the kidnapper. "They are the kidnappers. They have kidnapped Nacho!" "No," corrected Nacho's lawyer Barbara Zamora, "they have kidnapped justice."

One month after the purported "kidnapping" of the state officials, 3000 federal and state police smashed into Atenco, took over 200 prisoners including Del Valle, killed two young men, sexually assaulted 23 women, and deported five foreign human rights observers. The May 3 and 4 2006 repression in Atenco has been decried by human rights groups ranging from Amnesty International to the United Nations. Only one police officer has ever been indicted for sexual abuse, not considered a grave crime, and was long ago released on bail.

The assault on Atenco was prepared and orchestrated by Eduardo Medina Mora, then Secretary of Public Security, and now Calderon's Attorney General who designed the National Public Safety Accord signed at the August 23 summit.

There are several variants of kidnapping in contemporary Mexico: the normal commercial kidnapping in which the rich are snatched and held until a ransom is paid, often after dispatch of an ear or a finger of the victim through the mail; the "express" kidnapping where the victim in grabbed from a car or a taxi or an ATM machine and his or her cell phone used to call home and demand immediate payment while the victim is driven around - because these are quick in-and-out jobs and kidnappers are less selective, often putting the snatch on the middle class rather than the super rich, the ransoms are considerably lower; and "levantones" (literally "pick-ups") in which the kidnap victim is never again seen alive although body parts or a severed head may later be recovered, usually with a mordant note attached - "levantones" are very popular with the drug cartels as retribution for real or imagined slights by rival drug gangs or the authorities.

Other styles of kidnapping include police kidnappings in which police officers, often from anti-kidnapping squads, utilize their expertise to snatch well-heeled victims. Also in the repertoire: political kidnappings, such as the Popular Revolutionary Army's (EPR) 1994 taking of millionaire banker Alfredo Harp Helu, a close friend and business partner of Alejandro Marti's, that reportedly yielded a record $14,000,000 USD ransom, and the Mexican government's kidnapping of EPR militants Edmundo Reyes Amaya and Gabriel Cruz Sanchez in May 2007 - kidnappings by government agents are usually catalogued as "forced disappearances."

Then there are metaphorical kidnappings: when senators from the leftist Broad Progressive Front or FAP seized the tribune in the Mexican congress last April to prevent fast-track passage of a petroleum privatization measure, Televisa and Calderon's PAN Party accused them of "kidnapping" the legislative process. Similarly, Lopez Obrador's supporters accuse Calderon and his associates of "kidnapping" the presidency.

Kidnapping is essentially a crime of class. No one kidnaps the poor. Although the kidnappers themselves are not necessarily poor, their victims are invariably rich and like Alejandro Marti have ample access to the media to drum up sympathy. A silent march to protest Fernando's kidnap-murder, endorsed by Calderon's party and ballyhooed nightly by Televisa and TV Azteca, is expected to drawn tens of thousands in Mexico City August 30.

In an economy that has gone pancake flat, there's no doubt that kidnapping is a growth industry. Not only are the kidnappers making out like bandits but the crime itself has generated corollary industries such as private mediators to circumvent the not-to-be trusted police.

No one is quite certain just how many kidnappings take place in Mexico these days. The Attorney General's office counted 785 kidnappings throughout the country in 2007 and clocked 314 more in the first six months of 2008. But Enrique Mendieta, an ex-investigator with the attorney general's office who in 1997 collared the nation's most notorious kidnapper Daniel Arizmendi AKA "The Earchopper", and was contracted by Marti to negotiate with his son's captors, maintains that reported kidnappings are only half the story.

Since Mendieta retired from the Attorney General's office, he has continued to make a good living from kidnapping. Several years ago, he served as technical advisor for Hollywood director Tony Scott's Mexico City kidnap melodrama "Man On Fire" starring Denzell Washington.

Although Mendieta flopped badly in young Marti's case, he is confident that his business will flourish so long as the current wave of kidnappings continues. Interviewed by Proceso magazine in his offices facing Mexico's World Trade Center, the mediator refused to divulge what Alejandro Marti had paid him for his failed efforts to win release of his son.

Other commercial ventures kick-started by the kidnapping industry include special high premium insurance for potential kidnap victims; private security specialists like Kroll Associates who will bullet proof luxury automobiles; and high tech firms that will implant cyber chips in children and loved ones so that they can be located by satellite should they be kidnapped. The opportunities seem endless.

Kidnapping, as writer Arturo Cano who covers the kidnapping beat for the left daily La Jornada, reflects, is nothing less than "the bastard child of savage capitalism."

John Ross's web site is up and running if not yet a fait a compli. Ross is in Mexico City in the heat of writing the monstrously entitled "EL MONSTRUO - TALES OF DREAD AND REDEMPTION FROM THE MOST MONSTROUS MEGALOPOLIS ON THE PLANET EARTH." If you have further info, please write

No comments: