Early every morning, wealthy Mexican entrepreneur José Sánchez—not his real name—would visit his elderly father for coffee. They would chat for a while, and then the younger Sánchez would drive to his office nearby. This was a routine that he had followed religiously for years. It would also be his downfall.
Sánchez had built a successful business as a distributor of various Mexican consumer products, including a popular brand of beer. In 2003, he built a new warehouse that would become a distribution hub for his products. He gave an interview to a local newspaper, which published an article about the new logistics center.
The article attracted the attention of a group of kidnappers. They noticed that Sánchez, while not well known nationally, was wealthy. He had financed the $10 million investment with cash. Furthermore, he had no security detail and followed a predictable daily routine. He lived in a small town about one hour’s drive north of Mexico City. The kidnappers began monitoring his movements and soon realized that the ideal time to snatch him would be early in the morning as he left his father’s house.
Sánchez’s office was burglarized one night, probably just after the kidnappers had begun clandestinely monitoring his movements. The thieves were probably more interested in viewing his business and financial records to confirm his value as a target than in taking objects of value. Sánchez paid the robbery little attention at the time. Even in the small town where he lived, crime was so common that a simple burglary was scarcely worth reporting to the police.
One morning a few weeks later, Sánchez was abducted as he left his father’s house. He was blindfolded, bound, and driven to an unknown location. His captors kept him in a windowless room. They avoided any personal contact with him.
They blasted deafening heavy rock into his cell for hours. To further disorient him, the kidnappers brought his meals at irregular intervals and shone bright lights into his cell at night to stop him from sleeping.
“Obviously, these guys were professionals,” says Felix Batista, a consultant for ASI Global, a Houston-based risk management company, who worked with the family.
“Their purpose was to break him and make him sign a ‘confession’ that he was involved in drug trafficking which they could use to blackmail the family. Incredibly, he held out for weeks and weeks,” Batista says.
Exasperated, the kidnappers began torturing him with electric cables. Finally, Sánchez signed.
The kidnappers had already called the family to demand a $1 million ransom. Batista recalls that the negotiation was confusing, since the kidnappers seemed to be using two sets of callers to contact the family.
Eventually, the wife and brother-in-law agreed to pay a $1 million ransom, even though they had not received conclusive proof that Sánchez was even alive. The kidnappers took the money but did not release Sánchez.
The family members realized that they had both been tricked but not by the group holding Sánchez. What had happened was that another group had found out about the negotiations with the abductors and had convinced the family to hand the money over to them instead of to the real kidnappers.
After a tense period of silence, the talks resumed but this time with Batista advising the family. He suspected that the fake kidnappers were rogue police officers. He told family members to stop using their phones, which he believed the police had tapped. They communicated using heavily encrypted e-mails and a secure Internet telephone connection instead.
He appointed Sánchez’s sister María as the family’s negotiator. Batista set up a makeshift crisis center at her home. He demanded proof that Sánchez was still alive; the kidnappers scanned written statements from him and e-mailed them to María. They sent DVDs of Sánchez to prove he was alive and in their power.
Gradually, the family and kidnappers established a level of trust, but the negotiations dragged on for months. During that time, Batista insisted that María exercise, eat regular meals, and try to sleep properly. “Felix even cooked for us sometimes,” she says. “It’s important not to lose hope or get depressed, because you need to keep strong to help.”
Batista suspected that the kidnappers had political as well as financial motivations. They claimed to belong to a previously unknown group called México Bárbaro. Their intermediary was a Catholic priest. Batista thinks they were linked to a left-wing Mexican political party.
María, with Batista advising her, convinced the kidnappers to drop their ransom demand to $300,000. Eventually, they struck a deal. The kidnappers dispatched the priest to Mexico City to pick up the ransom payment, and Sánchez was released. Although he had lost weight and was psychologically disoriented, he was in good physical condition.