Mexicans Say ‘No More’ to Kidnappings |

Mexicans Say ‘No More’ to Kidnappings

Letta Tayler(c) 2004, Newsday

MEXICO CITY — The phone call came shortly after Vicente and Sebastian Gutierrez disappeared on the way home from their car dealership in May in this crime-plagued capital.

“We’re holding the two Gutierrez brothers,” a voice told a shocked relative. “Pay the ransom or they’ll die.”

The family reportedly dished out a $450,000 ransom, but the Gutierrez brothers never came home. Instead, their corpses were found a week later in a Mexico City garbage bin, victims of a kidnapping scourge that has given this country the world’s second-highest abduction rate after war-torn Colombia.

For years, Mexicans have suffered the kidnap plague mostly in silence, in part because they’ve had nowhere to turn: Corruption is so endemic in this fragile democracy that police and politicians work in kidnap rings, making it seemingly impossible to bring abductors to justice.

But in recent months, citizens here have started to declare, “No mas!” (“No more!”) An estimated half-million Mexicans recently marched through Mexico City to demand an end to kidnapping in particular and high crime rates in general.

“The culture of impunity must end,” declared demonstrator Carlos Albert, a businessman and cousin of Vicente Gutierrez, 28, and Sebastian Gutierrez, 29. “We’re fed up with being a country of victims.”

The protest was the largest in recent memory in Mexico City. Equally unusual were its participants and cause. Instead of subsistence farmers, factory workers or students seeking benefits, the demonstrators were wealthy or middle-class Mexicans who arrived by cab and sipped Starbucks lattes as they waved banners reading, “Save Mexico!”

Because the elite still hold sway here, organizers — including key business groups — believe they’re finally catching the government’s attention.

“We’ve become big enough and organized enough that the government can’t ignore the kidnapping problem any longer,” said Eduardo Gallo, a former hotel-chain manager whose daughter Paola, 25, was killed by kidnappers four years ago. After authorities failed to act, Gallo went undercover and scoured Mexico to find his daughter’s abductors himself.

The New York-based security firm Kroll Inc. estimates that 3,000 people were kidnapped in Mexico last year, about the same as in recent years, and second only to 4,000 abductions in Colombia.

Mexico officials say they received reports of only 438 kidnappings last year, down from 505 in 2001. But they agree with experts that most kidnappings go unreported because citizens fear retaliation.

“Who would dare report a kidnapping when you might be denouncing the crime before the very same person who carried it out?” said Miguel Ontiveros Alonso, chief investigator for Mexico’s National Institute of Criminal Science.

Unlike Colombia, where rebels use kidnap ransoms to fund a civil war, Mexico is at peace and an industrial powerhouse that boasts it is more akin democratically with the United States than with socially volatile countries to the south.

But in a new trend that conjures comparisons with Colombia, Mexican drug traffickers have begun kidnapping for ransom to help finance their operations. Moreover, Mexican kidnappers are growing increasingly ruthless. Of the 160 people whom kidnappers have killed since 1996, more than half were slain since 2001.

Abductions here have become so infamous that a kidnapping is the centerpiece of “Man on Fire,” a new movie shot in Mexico City starring Denzel Washington.

Most kidnappings are for ransom, with captors sometimes sending victims’ fingers or ears to families to press for higher payments.

Some are children sold for illegal adoption or prostitution. Cecelia Jimenez fears that’s what happened to her nephew, Marco Antonio Dionisio Luna, who was 9 when he dropped from sight en route to school three years ago in Huamantla, a working-class town outside of Mexico City. “He just vanished,” said Jimenez, fighting back tears as she marched last week with a poster bearing Marco Antonio’s photo.

In response to the march, government officials have announced a flurry of anti-kidnapping proposals, from implementing longer prison terms to creating a nationwide kidnapping database.

“As authorities we have failed to give the minimum guarantee citizens expect — the guarantee of security and peace,” admitted President Vicente Fox, who promised action within 60 days.

Even if implemented, Carlos Albert knows such measures won’t bring back his cousins, the Gutierrez brothers, whose parents, in an incident adding insult to injury, were robbed en route to their sons’ funeral.

But, he said, “maybe they’ll save other kidnap victims and pull Mexico out of this misery.”

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service