Trends. Apart from being conned into paying twice, there is little about the Sánchez family’s ordeal that is particularly different from the torment that thousands of other Mexican families go through every year when a relative is kidnapped. Mexico does not keep reliable official crime statistics, so it is hard to know how widespread kidnappings are, which social group is being targeted, or whether abductions are becoming more common. Anecdotal evidence suggests that kidnapping in Mexico is booming, fueled by impunity, police inefficiency and corruption, and a drug war raging between rival gangs and law enforcement.
Kidnapping is more common in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, than almost anywhere else in the world, says an analyst at a London-based security consultancy. The analyst says, “Kidnappings are certainly more common in Mexico than they were, say, five years ago. We are getting more calls to advise on protection and to negotiate the release of victims.”
The firm’s Mexico City office would get perhaps 10 calls a month in 2002, says the analyst. Now it gets about three times that number.
“This is a low-risk, high-return activity,” says a senior Mexican federal-law-enforcement official who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. He says that every day, about two to three people are kidnapped in Mexico City and about 10 are abducted daily elsewhere in Mexico, mainly in the northern border regions where drug cartels are powerful. Just 2 percent of kidnappings are ever solved, he estimates.
Kidnapping has long been a business much like any other criminal enterprise. Abductors seek low-risk, high-return targets. But now the kidnapping market is shifting. Wealthy people are no longer easy targets. They surround themselves with guards, ride in armored vehicles, vary their routines, and use sophisticated security systems. Kidnappers have reacted by moving down market to target Mexico’s emerging middle classes.
Professionals, business executives, and entrepreneurs are far more numerous than the super-rich, presenting kidnappers with a greater number of relatively easy targets. Although payouts from middle class victims rarely go beyond $30,000 to $50,000, criminals hold them for shorter periods of time than millionaires.
“These guys want turnover,” says Batista. “They have to make their numbers, and they can do it more easily by holding more people for shorter time periods.“
Express kidnappings, in which criminals hold their victims for a few hours, long enough for them to withdraw money from ATMs, have soared. While the take is lower than in a conventional abduction—perhaps as little as a few hundred dollars—criminals can grab even more people with much less effort.
“Virtual kidnappings,” in which criminals call phone numbers at random and claim to hold a family member hostage, have declined, because people are aware of the scam potential of such calls and are more cautious about responding. These calls usually originate from inside Mexican jails, where inmates try to extort money from victims using their cellphones. If the target takes the bait, an associate on the outside picks up payment before the victim realizes that his relative was never in danger.
Foreign companies and tourists are largely exempt from the wave of kidnappings. Multinationals have learned to take care of their executives by giving them training or providing them with guards and armored cars. Most multinationals carry kidnap and ransom insurance policies for their senior executives, which cover the fees paid to professional kidnap negotiators.
“We have been doing business here and around the world for many years, so we know how to balance and manage risk,” says Rafael Eduardo Gonzales, CPP, head of security at PepsiCo in Mexico. “Concern with kidnapping is not an issue in the United States, but it is here, so we must take appropriate actions.”
Kidnappers try to avoid abducting foreigners. The language barrier makes it harder for them to manage foreign prisoners and negotiations with foreign families are unlikely to proceed as smoothly as with Mexicans, who have grown accustomed to kidnapping. Mexican police are often more motivated— usually by pressure from foreign embassies—to react to the kidnapping of a foreigner.
But foreigners sometimes become victims. An October 2007 report by the Congressional Research Service found that Mexican drug gangs had kidnapped more than 60 Americans in Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican twin city of Laredo, Texas.
The report also noted the role of corrupt officials, stating that “Mexican cartels advance their operations, in part, by corrupting or intimidating law enforcement officials. For example, Nuevo Laredo municipal police have reportedly been involved in the kidnapping of Gulf cartel competitors."
The report said that police hand their prisoners over to the rival gang’s enforcers who “hold them for ransom or torture them for information about their drug operations.” Analysts report a similar phenomenon in the San Diego area, which is located close to Tijuana, one of Mexico’s most crime-ridden cities.
Drug gangs also see kidnapping as a lucrative addition to their main activity, according to a Mexican law enforcement official interviewed for this article. Gangs are also active in extortion, such as protection rackets. They abduct people who fail to comply with their demands.