Mexican authorities have released a new report on kidnapping, detailing the growing dependence by drug trafficking gangs on the activity.

As reported by Proceso and other media outlets, the Federal Police named the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and the Familia Michoacana as the gangs most dependent on kidnapping revenues:

“In the northern part of the country, the state with the most kidnappings is Tamaulipas. In Tamaulipas cells of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas operate. Those people work in the same manner in the southern portion of the country, such as in the states of Veracruz, Tabasco, and Chiapas,” said [Armando Espinosa de Benito, chief of the Research Division of the Federal Police].

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The kidnappers generally pretend to be productive members of society, with a job, leading a family or having spouses; in the case of the women, some are pregnant or even have children. In the house where they live they appear to be one more family, but that place could be a safe house,” Espinosa said.

“We are seeing that in Zacatecas groups belonging to the Zetas are also operating, while in Michoacan, the Familia is dominant,” he explained.

The report comes amid an ongoing increase in the prevalence of kidnapping in Mexico. In 2007, Calderon’s first year in office, the National Public Security System, or SNSP for its initials in Spanish, registered just 438 kidnappings. The following year, the figure leaped to 907.
Mexico_Kidnappings_2007-2012In 2009, 2010, and 2011, respectively, the number of registered kidnappings tallied 1,162, 1,236 and 1,327. That is, the number of reported kidnappings has more than tripled during the Calderon administration.

Because victims often don’t wish to report their cases, the actual number is assumed to be far higher, perhaps 10 or 15 times larger. The jump in reported kidnappings is typically explained by an increase in the total number of abductions, meaning that the crime has grown far more frequent as the nation’s most notorious criminal groups have become more involved in the practice.

Kidnapping has long been among the crimes most worrying to Mexican society. Some organizations, such as Daniel Arizmendi’s gang, which was known for slicing the ear off of its victims, and Los Petriciolet, which was linked to the 2008 murder of the sporting-goods heir Fernando Marti, earned widespread notoriety for their crimes. Mexico’s wave of kidnappings was also the subject of the 2004 feature film “Man on Fire.”

In recent years, the domination of the specialized kidnapping gangs like those mentioned above has given way to the increasing participation by organized crime groups in abductions for ransom. A report from the Ministry of Public Security, or SSP for its initials in Spanish, released in December of 2011 estimated that 30 percent of all kidnappings in Mexico were linked to drug trafficking gangs. According to the report, the Gulf and the Zetas were responsible for 50 percent of all such kidnappings, while the while the Caballeros Templarios and the Familia Michoacana had together committed another 33 percent.

Anecdotal reports of both Zeta and the Gulf Cartel henchmen participating in kidnappings have emerged with frequency in recent years. In one of the most notorious cases, a former first-division goalkeeper was arrested for allegedly participating in a Gulf Cartel-linked kidnapping ring in Mexico’s northeastern region.

While a number of different factors -- for instance, more upstart groups with weaker ties to cocaine-producing nations, widespread impunity-- have helped encourage the drug gangs’ incursion into this alternate field, the underlying motivation is simple: money. The revenues from drug trafficking dwarf those from kidnapping, but the latter activity is certainly not a waste of a criminal group’s time, and can serve as a valuable supplement should trafficking routes be interrupted or suppliers suffer arrests.

As noted by Alejandro Hope, Mexican authorities recently reported that the average ransom payoff in kidnappings is roughly $50,000. If the actual number of kidnappings isn’t a bit more than 1,300 but is actually 16,000, than this implies annual revenues of $800 million. If drug traffickers occupy 30 percent of the industry, that implies annual kidnapping earnings of $240 million for drug gangs. Obviously, these are ballpark figures rather than reliable calculations, and changing the value of any of the inputs leads to a significantly different final estimate. In any event, the $240 million is far less than the $6.6 billion that the RAND Corporation estimates that the Mexican traffickers earn from exporting drugs to feed the US market.

But hundreds of millions of dollars is not an insubstantial sum, and is more significant still when you consider the dependence on the crime varies from gang to gang and region to region. Kidnapping may be something of a sideshow for drug gangs, but quite a lucrative and harmful one.