MEXICO CITY — On a quiet November day nearly two years ago, Luis Ángel León Rodriguez called his mother, Araceli, to tell her he would be leaving town for a while. The 24-year-old federal police officer was being sent on a mission to Michoacán, one of Mexico's hottest states for organized crime. He would earn a bit more money in the danger zone, he explained. His mother implored him not to go; Luis Ángel brushed off her fears.
The last call Araceli received from her son came two days later, on Nov. 16, 2009, as Luis Ángel, five other officers, and a civilian mechanic were leaving Mexico City for the front lines. Luis Ángel told his mother he loved her and not to worry. "It was as if he knew we were going to be separated for a while," she told me. Araceli hasn't heard from her son -- or any of his companions -- since.
Recently, a research institute here announced that Mexico suffers from the second-highest kidnapping rate of any country in the world -- three times higher than Colombia's during its darkest period of drug violence and second only to Venezuela. For mothers like Araceli, the result was no surprise; but beyond the stark headline of the country's ranking, the study provides some insight into the skyrocketing rates of violence that have accompanied President Felipe Calderón's war on drugs, and the security forces' impotence -- or worse, complicity -- which has allowed the violence to escalate. Calderón has, under pressure from Araceli and other victims' families and advocacy groups, made efforts to reform his government's approach. But taking the country to a place where Luis Ángel’s story is an outlier will require changes across the board in Mexico: not simply a stronger hand in the war on drugs, but a much closer look at how that war is being fought.
The study, published by the Citizens' Institute for the Study of Insecurity and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, shows that Luis Ángel and his six companions are just a tiny percentage of those missing. The report estimates that 50,000 people were kidnapped in 2008, and numbers are up since then (though no more recent statistics are available). The more startling findings, however, may be the numbers on the Mexican government's ability to investigate and solve kidnapping cases. Between 2007 and 2010, according to the report, the Mexican government initiated 1,880 investigations into kidnapping. However, it actively pursued only 23 percent of those.
Luis Ángel's case offers a sad example of just how poorly the state can handle kidnapping cases. When Araceli didn't hear from her son for a week, she went to the police headquarters and asked where he was. To her horror, she found that no one had even noticed that the policemen were missing.
In the days that followed, Araceli and the other victims' family members tried everything they could to convince the police to begin an investigation. They reported the disappearances with several authorities, they waited for meetings with police officials until late into the evening, they called highly placed contacts, and they contacted human rights organizations.
What they got in return were countless stories, few of which made sense. "They've told us: The criminals still have them, the criminals killed them, the criminals decapitated them, the criminals burned them, the criminals sent them into the forest," Araceli said. "In fact, there have been so many contradictions that we somehow still have faith that they might be alive somewhere."
Araceli was lucky, in one sense: At least she was able to talk to the police. According to the study, only about 60 percent of kidnappings are ever reported to police in the first place. And many relatives of kidnapping victims are so intimidated by the threats they receive that they halt their investigations well before they get off the ground. Araceli herself received countless threats, by phone and letter, warning her to give up. A man once called, pretending to be her son screaming in pain and asking her to "make it stop." But it wasn't Luis Ángel's voice, so she hung up. Because of the threats, Araceli has begun the process of seeking witness protection from the federal government.
The recent survey asked victims why they chose not to come forward with their crimes. One in 10 said it was out of fear, and another 16 percent noted that they doubted authorities would follow up. That lack of confidence is well-founded: In the state of Chihuahua, one of the country's most violent according to the kidnapping report, a mere 0.9 percent of all reports of extortion were ever followed up on.
According to the official police story, which Araceli only heard in February 2010, the men were kidnapped and killed by La Familia de Michoacán, one of the more violent cartels in Mexico. Araceli, however, has received threat letters signed by Los Zetas, another cartel. No corpses have ever been found. So each time a group of bodies shows up, Araceli is called by the prosecutor to make a positive identification. She has yet to see her son, but she has seen dozens of corpses -- a window into just how many families there are like hers, waiting for a son to come home. More than 5,000 people are currently missing in this conflict.