Challenges. Violent crime—including kidnapping—is a major political issue in Mexico. “Crime is the number one issue in Mexico. It affects everyone: the poor, the middle class, the rich,” says Raúl Fraga, head of the investigative reporting unit at El Financiero, a Mexico City business newspaper.
Government response for the last 20 years has been lacking, he says, noting, “They promise a lot, but the situation keeps on getting worse.”
It has become a tradition for every incoming president to announce that combating crime is a priority, but initiatives do not go beyond fresh legislation or the creation of new elite police units that are supposedly immune to corruption, Fraga explains.
President Felipe Calderón, who took office in December 2006, followed this tradition, making crime fighting his priority. He sent thousands of federal troops to the northern states to crack down on drug gangs and restore order. He reorganized federal law-enforcement agencies.
The problem is that crime in Mexico is too deeply rooted in society to be eliminated with a few changes in policy and the appointment of a few new faces, argues Fraga. Corruption, impunity, nepotism, influence peddling, the exclusion of people from the political process, and the growing power and lethality of Mexico’s drug gangs, all make fighting crime a Herculean challenge. Kidnapping is just one piece of that large and complex puzzle.
The federal official says that the results of Calderón’s crackdown on crime have been disappointing. He says the federal police, security, and investigative services are underfunded, poorly trained, corrupt, and demoralized. An entry-level investigator with a law degree earns less than $12,000 a year, so federal positions do not attract the best minds.
Low pay exposes officials to the temptations of corruption. Further, the federal bureaucracy is deeply politicized, which inhibits merit-based promotions. The federal official says that the head of his department is a political appointee with no police experience.
Kidnapping response is a local government responsibility, but families avoid involving state or city police in abductions, because they assume officers are involved with the criminals or because they fear that the police would disrupt delicate negotiations with an inept rescue attempt.
Lessons learned. Other Latin American countries have made progress in fighting crime in general and kidnapping in particular. Colombia has made steady progress in reducing abductions. Kidnapping is still rampant, but Colombia’s Defense Ministry says reported cases of kidnapping fell 27 percent to 447 from January through June 2008.
For-profit criminals carried out 190 of these kidnappings, a decline of 30 percent. The improvement seems to be a result of the government’s successful offensive against rebel armies, which use kidnapping as a main source of revenue.
Brazil, another kidnapping hotspot, has also seen a steady reduction in violent crime and kidnapping, says Ted Goertzel, a sociology professor at Rutgers University, who has studied crime in Brazil. The state of São Paulo, the country’s wealthiest region, has seen a decline in kidnapping, because the local government has increased spending on police training, raising salaries, and fighting corruption. An improving economy has also brought more would-be criminals into the formal economy.
This does not mean that either country has eliminated kidnapping. Official statistics are imperfect and show only a part of a larger picture. However, they do reflect a general gradual improvement. The data may even underestimate the improvement, Goertzel says, because people are becoming more confident in reporting crime to the police than before.
Precautions. To avoid becoming a victim, whether in Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America, individuals should follow a few basic rules. First is to keep a low profile. Second is not to wear expensive jewelry. Third is to avoid dangerous neighborhoods and random cabs. Travelers should use only hotel cars or taxis from trusted taxi stands.
Consultants advise kidnap victims to remain calm, cooperate with their abductors, and not try to escape. Resistance can result in injury or even death. Victims should try to establish a relationship with their captors and keep a positive attitude. Kidnapping is a business transaction, which means that captors want to keep their prisoner alive and well.
Family members contacted by kidnappers should cooperate but also play for time. They should realize that initial demands for money are merely an opening gambit in a negotiation; consultants say kidnappers usually settle for about one-tenth of their initial demands. Before paying, family members are advised to get proof that their relative is alive—and is indeed held by the kidnappers.
John Barham is a former senior editor at Security Management.