Dispatch

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

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