Kidnap Capital

Why Mexico's snatching epidemic is worse than anything we've seen before.

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.

What is behind Mexico's epidemic of kidnapping? As Calderón has tried to break the cartels, regions once free from drug-trafficking violence have found themselves caught in the crossfire between the military and organized crime.

Adding to the confusion, the cartels, once limited to just a few huge regional magnates, have fractured and proliferated, with countless local gang-like structures emerging from the general insecurity. In the worst-affected places, "you've opened the gates to hell and there is no legitimate authority to be found anywhere," explains Ted Lewis, head of the human rights program at Global Exchange.

Many of the gangs kidnap for financial reasons: ransom and extortion. The June 29 survey noted that "kidnapping and extortion are crimes carried out in parallel to organized crime, allowing organizations to smooth out their finances when, for one reason or another, the drug trafficking market -- their primary source of income -- is affected."

Other cartels kidnap as a sort of violent conscription: to round up foot soldiers, argued Antonio Mazzitelli, head of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime in Mexico. "If I want to control a territory, I must also count on a large number of soldiers," Mazzitelli says. He pointed to the mass kidnappings of hundreds of migrants in recent months, attributed to cartels such as Los Zetas: "The migrants provide me [the cartel] with a tank of manpower I can dispose of. I seize the migrants, and first of all I will ask them, are you ready to work for me? I give you a rifle and I pay you $1,000 a week." Anecdotal discussions with human rights groups and victims also suggest that it's not just migrants who are taken this way; police, soldiers, and civilians are too.

There are other, less tangible reasons, as well. Increasingly, Mexico's war on drugs looks less like a criminal crackdown and more like a war. And the cartels' enemies are clearly the federal policemen and soldiers sent to unseat them -- men like Luis Ángel. For the cartels, killing a federal policeman or soldier is a symbolic win in a conflict that is increasingly fought in the public space. Corpses are decapitated, victims' bodies have notes pinned to their bodies, and men hang from bridges by ropes. "The spectacular nature of the crime is meant to maximize the media impact," explains Eduardo Guerrero, a former advisor to the Mexican presidency and a political analyst. "All this, so that the people know that the cartels are to be feared."

Yet none of these explanations seems to satisfy cases like Araceli's. She has never been asked for money; her son's corpse was never publicly displayed. It's certainly possible that Luis Ángel was simply dropped somewhere. Or maybe he was recruited -- that would at least mean he is alive. This certainly wouldn't be the first time that the security forces have switched sides, voluntarily or not; Los Zetas was founded by former military personnel.

But there's one more possibility that keeps Araceli up at night: She also has suspicions -- based on the unwillingness to investigate or offer evidence -- that there was some sort of police involvement in the disappearances. When Luis Ángel was leaving Mexico City, the police asked him to drive his personal car, not a police vehicle. Someone may well have set him up as a marked target, tipping gang members off that seven easy victims carrying newly issued rifles were on their way.

That would hardly be unheard of. "Many of the police are involved in organized crime," explains Alejandro Fontecilla, a police expert who works on local security reform at the Institute for Security and Democracy in Mexico City. He estimates that, in regions like Michoacán, the cartels' level of infiltration into the police force could be more than 50 percent.

At the very least, the federal and local police failed to coordinate between themselves about where the six policemen going to Michoacán ended up that day. "Something is not working in this system -- there is no communication," says Araceli. "If you send someone to a locality and you don't know what happened to them, that's it, they're gone."

Over a year and a half after Luis Ángel disappeared, Araceli took part in a public meeting between Calderón and several victims' families. It was part of a national dialogue spawned by mass protests that swept through Mexico in June and called for an end to the violence; after the demonstrations ended, Calderón promised to open his door to hear victims' grievances. Sitting in downtown Mexico City across from the president, Araceli explained everything she knew about the case and beseeched the government, once again, for help.

In his June 23 meeting with Araceli, Calderon passionately defended his crackdown on organized crime and argued that it was a battle his government could not abandon. Indeed, in the days since the president met with the victims of organized crime, Calderón has made several statements about the importance of ending impunity for drug-related crimes. He vowed on Twitter on June 30 to focus on "ways to reduce the most common crimes: robbery, extortion, and kidnapping."

On June 30, the Calderón administration passed a National Program to Prevent, Prosecute, and Punish Kidnapping, which will come into effect in August as a one-year trial initiative. The plan promises to create specially trained investigators, build a technological platform through which agencies can exchange information about a crime, boost intelligence capacities, build new judicial procedures to try suspects, and increase the amount of assistance provided to victims of crime. Those plans build on an anti-kidnapping law passed in 2010 that already went far toward raising the penalties for kidnapping and creating special units within the army and police to investigate and tackle the crimes. Whether the initial law has had an effect is difficult to judge so far. It certainly gives the state new investigatory and judicial tools that could help -- if they are used.

But these steps will likely bring only incremental improvements, and it looks increasingly like that the violence won't stop until this conflict does as well. That might mean the Calderón administration gaining an upper hand on the cartels; it might also require an institutional purge within the Mexican government, ridding its ranks of infiltrated officers. The Calderón administration is acutely aware of this latter problem and is working to reform the police and military. Once again, however, it is a long-term battle, and the price tag is only growing.

"I can't tell you how many families, wives, and friends there are," in similar situations, said Araceli. "Every day I see my son's shoes and shirts. Where is he? I just want to know if he is alive or dead. I can't live in grief.

"The best strategy for this conflict is the truth."

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Trouble Down South

For Saudi Arabia, Yemen's implosion is a nightmare.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Border buffer zone aside, it can be hard, in some ways, to figure out where the Saudi state ends and the Yemeni state begins. Ordinary Yemenis, for example, still make the journey north to the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah to attend the majalis, or councils, of King Abdullah. There the Yemenis petition the Saudi monarch for favors and cash handouts, with the blessings of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. "Go try your luck," Saleh, ever pragmatic, is quoted as once telling his people on their cross-border begging missions.

In many ways, Saleh and Saudi Arabia allowed the Yemeni state and its elites to go on the Saudi dole as well. Since the 1980s at least, wealthy Saudi Arabia, with its habit of dispensing largesse to soothe troubles and cement loyalties, has routinely dispensed up to several billion dollars annually to thousands of Yemeni tribal leaders, security officials, and other Yemeni elites, as well as to Yemen's government. But by all accounts, the flow of Saudi patronage has narrowed to far fewer tribal leaders amid Yemen's present upheaval.

These days, in a further blurring of frontiers, Saleh presides not from his outwardly nondescript walled compound in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, but from a hospital bed in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Saleh, medicated for pain, is recovering from a June 3 assassination attempt. Aides acting in his name issue birthday greetings to fellow world leaders to try to show the Yemeni president still feebly in charge. After five months of state collapse in Yemen and his own near death, however, the president is no longer politically capable of wielding power, but remains temperamentally incapable of yielding it. Saudis urge Saleh to quit while he still has "honor, rather than leave with danger and harassment," said Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Saud al-Kabeer, the Foreign Ministry's undersecretary for multilateral relations, but the badly burned Yemeni leader still refuses to sign a Saudi-backed deal for his resignation.

For Yemenis, suffering under worsening shortages of food, water, gasoline, and electricity in a country adrift, the answer to the question of what comes next in the stalemate lies partly with Saleh, partly with themselves, and partly with Saudi Arabia.

Critics for decades have accused Saudi Arabia of purposefully fostering a Yemeni government too immature to ever pose a state threat to Saudis. "Keep Yemen weak," King Abdul Aziz is supposed to have told his sons on his deathbed, in one of two such warnings the founder of the modern Saudi state handed down to his sons and grandsons.

In interviews, Saudi officials and their supporters insist that even if Saudi Arabia once favored a Yemen that was neither too stable nor unstable, its position has changed: Saudi Arabia now wants a Yemeni government strong enough to quell the country's internal chaos.

"Saudis more than anyone else don't like chaos. Change they can deal with; they don't like chaos.... For the Saudis, Yemen is a problem to manage. It's not a problem to be fixed," said a Western diplomat.

The kingdom's supporters maintain that Saudi Arabia deserves credit for pushing a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plan that would force out Saleh -- a longtime Saudi ally, though an unreliable one -- and bring new elections in Yemen.

But can Saudi Arabia, among the most risk-adverse of states, tolerate the kind of unruly transition to democracy that demonstrators in Yemen's streets have been demanding for the past five months?

Even in Saudi Arabia, many doubt it.

"The government has always used this money to control people, silence them. It worked for a long time," Mazin Mutabagani, a scholar and Yemen expert at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, told me. "If they could give Ali Abdullah Saleh a new life, they would give [it to] him, to go back. They are fond of dictators."

Under Saleh, whose rise to the presidency in 1978 was supported by Riyadh, Saudi Arabia has denied Yemen the monopoly of power and integrity of borders that are the basics of statehood, through payments that blur the allegiances of Yemeni tribes and others, and through cross-border security operations, argues Abdullah Hamidaddin, a political analyst in Jeddah.

"Increasing the autonomy of the tribe always degrades the authority of the central government," Hamidaddin told me, adding, "In what other countries do citizens receive a salary from a foreign government?"

As a result, in Yemen "the state is never seen as a state. It's seen as another tribe, and one that is competing with other tribes for resources," Hamidaddin says. "This is the devastating concept that has happened to Yemen in the last 20 years."

Hamidaddin, at 42, approaches the Yemen question from a different background from most. He is the grandson of the last in a line of imams that ruled north Yemen off and on for 1,100 years, until a republican military regime that preceded Saleh's overthrew the Yemeni imamate in 1962.

The eight-year republican-royalist war that followed between Hamidaddin's uncles and the republican Yemeni military commanders show how hard a slog warfare is in Yemen's mountains and caves, and how unpredictable its outcome. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's Arab nationalist regime intervened on behalf of Yemen's republican coup leaders, thinking that they could defeat the Yemeni royalists in a few weeks with a battalion of Egyptian special forces and some aircraft. But in a Cold War dog pile of strange alliances, the United States, the Saudi and Jordanian monarchies, the Shah of Iran, and by many accounts even Israel gave financing, training, and arms to the Yemeni royalists and Yemeni tribes against the Egypt- and Soviet-backed Yemeni officers. The royalists lost -- after nearly a decade of fighting that killed more than 20,000 Egyptian troops. Arab regimes emerged shaken by the difficulty of fighting in rugged Yemen.

Saudi Arabia learned the lesson again in a 2009 military operation against Yemeni Shiite Houthi rebels, in which friendly fire is said to have claimed some Saudi troops. With Yemen now showing itself increasingly unable or unwilling to control al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other extremists forces, Saudi Arabia is stepping up its preparation of special forces able to operate across the border in Yemen's rough terrain, according to analyst Nawaf Obaid and other Saudis.

Saudi Arabia's strategic direction on Yemen has been in flux, and not just because Saleh's government has imploded. Part of it is due to changing power dynamics within the monarchy: Saudi Crown Prince Sultan, who long dispensed the patronage payments to Yemen through the kingdom's special committee for Yemen affairs, has been ill for years and is reported to be under medical care in New York. Prince Nayef, already much involved in Yemeni affairs as interior minister and as the father of Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, has assumed much more control of the Yemen portfolio, according to many longtime observers. Prince Nayef is regarded as heavily focused on security, which means Saudi Arabia, like the United States, may be seeing Yemen ever more narrowly through a counterterrorism prism. With Prince Sultan in poor health, Prince Nayef is now seen as King Abdullah's most likely successor.

Prince Turki, the foreign affairs undersecretary, confirmed to me that Saudi payments through Prince Sultan's old Yemen committee were suspended this spring.

Saudi payments, however, have since resumed to some Yemeni tribal leaders, Hamidaddin said. Jamal Khashoggi, a political analyst close to the royal family, told me that Yemenis still getting Saudi financial support include the powerful al-Ahmar family, which leads the Hashid tribal confederation in Yemen. The al-Ahmars have been principals in fighting the Shiite Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, in supporting dissent against Saleh, and in fighting loyalist Saleh forces in Yemen's capital.

Saudis variously describe the payments to Yemenis as both an effort to secure stewards of Saudi Arabia's interests in Yemen and an effort to channel aid to Yemen, by far the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, in a way that can't be skimmed off by Saleh's notoriously corrupt regime.

The stipends "are a way to help them, Yemenis at large and the central government," Prince Turki told me. "We're not bribing them. Bribes don't bring you stability."

Saudi leaders fear massive refugee flows and even greater trafficking of arms and extremists into the peninsula if Yemen keeps collapsing. In Yemen, "a strong government is essential for us," the prince said.

"Let's call them friends of Saudi Arabia," Khashoggi said of those receiving patronage. "Saudi Arabia pays them money handsomely for various services such as influence, protection, stability. That's what matters in Saudi Arabia."

In fact, said Barbara Bodine, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, "the Saudis have really gotten very little for their money, but have a dilemma in that they can't cut it off entirely. Yemen needs the money, and without it, it would probably implode."

Saleh himself likewise governed through his own patronage system, divvying out Yemen's wealth and influence to elites to keep them on his side and blocking development of state institutions in the process.

The lack of focus on government-building, including the failure to build a functioning tax system, means that whoever succeeds Saleh "is going to need Saudi 110 percent," said Fernando Carvajal, an expert on Saudi-Yemeni relations at Britain's University of Exeter. Yemen will need Saudi Arabia's money "for restructuring and to pay a new patronage network."

As a result, rival candidates for power seem to be pitching a line that they think will hook the conservative Saudis -- with members of the official coalition of opposition parties telling reporters that democracy is an adventure that Yemen's not quite ready for, Carvajal noted.

Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries, and countries around the world that have pledged aid to Yemen say they will open the taps for development and aid in Yemen after the GCC deal clears.

For now, though, all wait for Saleh to quit, if he ever does. From his hospital bed, Saleh promised King Abdullah in a phone call last month that he would sign the GCC deal, according to Prince Turki. (Saleh has reneged on the same promise to others at least three times. The Yemen leader will try to go back to Yemen, one official predicted, if he has to roll himself there "in a wheelchair.")

If Saleh signs, Saleh's son and nephews, who have refused to yield up the presidential palace or their loyalist forces in Saleh's absence, will be no problem, Prince Turki predicted. He made a shooing gesture: "Boys, go on."

Beyond that, the al-Saud family has no desire to immerse itself in Yemen, the prince maintained. He cited the second cautionary tale on Yemen from the late King Abdul Aziz: In the 1930s, the king's sons Saud and Faisal entered Yemen in a dispute with the then-ruling Yemeni imams. Faisal, in his youthful enthusiasm, raced with his troops far down the Yemeni coast and urged his father to take advantage of his military advance.

No, pull back to the border, King Abdul Aziz is supposed to have directed his headstrong son. "That is Yemen. You don't stay in Yemen."