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How Mexico's Zetas Enslave Engineers

  • Written by Paris Martinez*
  • Sunday, 28 October 2012

The date was January 25, 2009, and Jose Antonio Robledo Fernandez was talking to his girlfriend on the phone as he parked his car in front of a mechanic shop in Monclava, Coahuila.

Jose Antonio was an engineer. He was born in Mexico City, but he had been living for months in this northern city, where he was working for a construction company known as ICA Flour Daniel.

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[See the complete special report by Animal Político here.]

He was good candidate for this job and others. Jose Antonio spoke perfect English and was experienced in installing sophisticated communications systems. His job in Monclava was to oversee ICA's sub-contractors in this municipality. Monclava may not have been Jose Antonio's first choice of places to work, but it was a chance for him to make some extra money so that he could get married.

Still, he had not taken into consideration the dangers around him. He didn't know, for instance, that the Zetas crime syndicate -- Mexico's fiercest and bloodiest group -- charged a so-called "operating tax" from the company that had contracted him. Nor did he know that some of the people he worked with also collaborated with the criminal group.

After he parked his 2004-model Xtrail in the mechanic's lot, three armed men approached Jose Antonio.
"Who do you work for?" one asked.
"With ICA," the engineer said.
"Give me the keys and get in," they told him.
The last thing Jose Antonio's fiancee heard was the men beating him.

Three years and ten months later, Jose Antonio is still missing. He is one of at least 36 professionals and skilled technicians who, in the last four years, have been snatched up by organized criminal groups -- not for ransom, but for enslavement.

"It is No Coincidence"

In 2011 alone, the Mexican Senate's Security Committee learned of nearly a dozen such cases in which professionals like Jose Antonio disappeared. 

"The fact that skilled workers have been disappearing in these areas is no accident," says Felipe Gonzalez Gonzalez, head of the Senate Security Committee. "I said it in various security meetings, when the army and navy started to find antennas and highly sophisticated systems; I am sure that the missing specialists were forced to develop that infrastructure."

Indeed, in September last year, the army dismantled a telecommunications network run by organized criminal groups in Jalisco. They found another one in Coahuila, and the navy found one in Veracruz, with 13 functioning antennas.

The most important discovery came on December 12, 2011, when the army found a clandestine radio communications network used by the Zetas, with stations in Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi. It had 167 antennas and 155 relay stations, linking 1,450 radios, 1,300 cell phones, and 1,350 Nextel devices -- all controlled by 70 computers.

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The antennas were installed on hills and in remote, high-altitude lcations in the northeast of the country, sometimes in spots that could only be reached by a five days' walk. Some of them even ran on solar energy.

So far in 2012, the armed forces have destroyed clandestine telecommunications facilities in Sonora (seven antennas and 20 relay stations), Chihuahua (one aerial and one relay station), Veracruz (13 antennas), Tamaulipas (two antennas and one relay station), and along the Monterrey-Nuevo Leon highway (one 50-meter wide antenna, and one relay station)

In total, more than 400 antennas and relay stations have been destroyed by the authorities.

"I don't see how it (the disappearance of the technicians) could have been a coincidence," said Senator Felipe Gonzalez, who served as secretary of the Bicameral Committee on National Security for six years, and who also chaired the Counter-terrorism Committee of the Latin American Parliament. "None of the systems engineers who disappeared have been found. Just last year armed men stopped a bus and forced two people who said they worked for a systems company to get out. The problem was they weren't technical specialists, but mere operators. They reappeared later, but were dead."

More and More and More

In 2010, the families of the disappeared in Coahuila created an organization to collectively express their frustration. The United Forces for the Disappeared in Coahuila (Fundec), has since tracked, between January 2007 and July 2012, a total of 256 victims of forced disappearance in that state. This does not include victims who were kidnapped for ransom. It includes only relatives of families that never received any ransom request, who had no criminal record or ties to organized crime, i.e., "innocent civilians."

In 2011, Fundec became the United Forces for the Disappeared in Mexico (Fundem). Since then, it has registered 80 more cases elsewhere in the country. Of these, 25 percent are reportedly professionals. 

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In addition to the case of Jose Antonio Robledo, Fundec has documented the forced disappearance of industrial engineer Dora Elba Solis Parrilla; marketing specialist Martha Dene Guerrero Guevara; banking executive Dan Jeremeel Fernandez Moran (who was taken by soldiers and police; after three were detained, they were themselves murdered by an armed group, which entered the lock-up to kill them). 

There is also the cases of Antonio de Jesus Verastegui Escobedo, a student at Saltillo Technical Institute, and his father; veterinarians Isaias Uribe Hernandez and Juan Pablo Alvarado Oliveros; businessman Victor Adrian Rodriguez Moreno; biology professor Javier Burciaga Vazquez, and, 10 months later, his brother Luis Carlos.

Additionally, the families of 25 other professionals have reported kidnappings in Veracruz, Colima, Guadalajara, Nuevo Leon and Zacatecas. They are architects, engineers, oil technicians, financial specialists, doctors, and lawyers. Nelly Montealegre, a federal prosecutor who works on human trafficking, says she is aware of their cases, but she also admits with an innocent smile that there is not a single active investigation into them.

They Should Look for them Alive

On January 27, 2011, Alejandro Alfonso Moreno Baca got into his red Mazda and left Mexico City on his way to Laredo, Texas, where he planned to visit a friend. At kilometer 13 of the Monterrey-Nuevo Leon highway, near the Sabinas Hidalgo toll booth, he was stopped at a roadblock manned by Zetas gunmen. He has not been heard from since.

"It wasn't money that they wanted. They never communicated with us to demand a ransom payment," says Lucia Baca, Alejandro's mother. "So, we ask ourselves: Why do they take them? Why do they take them? There must be a logical reason: Why? Why? They are all young, and the authorities are looking for their bodies, looking for their graves, when they should be seeking them alive."

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Lucia holds a missing person card with a picture of Alejandro in her hands while she speaks. Alejandro had been working at IBM-Mexico for four years when he was disappeared. Alejandro's father, Alfonso, sits next to his wife. He holds maps marked with the coordinates of the places their son crossed on the last day that they had news of him. They also have with the reports from his cell phone, and the photos of other victims who disappeared in that area.

"Between 2007 and October 2011, 16 people disappeared in that zone," says Alfonso. "We know of cases of victims who were coming from Monterrey, from Jalisco, from Guanajuato, all young: Miriam, Perfecto, Andres, Braulio, Ismael, and various others, who all disappeared close to the Sabinas Hidalgo toll booth. There has been no ransom demand in any of these cases."

In fact, the Nuevo Leon-based civil society organization known as the Citizens in Support of Human Rights (CADHAC) calculates that, in 2011 alone, 800 people disappeared in the state, 200 of which were kidnapped from highways. Of these, CADHAC says 65 percent were kidnapped by members of criminal groups and the rest by police, Marines or soldiers.

Three days after Alejandro was kidnapped, his parents went to Monterrey to begin their search. They visited the offices of the federal police, where they were told not to worry.

"Your son will be given back to you in three months, and don't hurry to find the car, it will appear on some ranch somewhere," the on duty police officer told them.

"It was then that we became aware the scale of the corruption in the state," Alfonso explains. "We returned later only to realize that all the municipal police in Sabinas, starting with the commander, were protecting organized criminal groups. In fact, the man who was their commander is now in prison."

In January, on the stretch of highway near Sabinas, another systems technician was kidnapped, along with a teacher, two athletes and a student of international relations, among others.

"In Nuevo Laredo they are also investigating the kidnapping of two technicians who were taken from their homes," Alfonso says. "The common denominator is that they are all between 20 and 40 years old, both men and women. Those who are engineers or systems technicians are put to work creating their communications networks, and those who are specialists in other areas are put to work elsewhere... But that is the hope, that they are still alive, that they have them working, telling them they must obey or die. We must search for them alive."

In October last year, the army attacked a Zetas camp in Sabinas. There were allegedly an estimated 200 people at the camp. Twenty-two gunmen were reported dead. The rest fled  during the fighting using mountain roads. It is not known there were people being held against their will among them.

"If they say that this narco-camp had 200 people, and the soldiers killed 22, then where are the other 178?" Alfonso wonders. "Why didn't the army get them, who were they, and where are they now?"

Nine...

Technicians started going missing in 2009, when a group of nine people contracted to install radio antennas in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, were kidnapped by armed men. The nine were from Guasave, Sinaloa, and some had up to 10 years experience in installing communications equipment.

They had arrived at the border city some two weeks before, on a six-month work contract, where they had rented an apartment. At midnight on June 19, neighbors say a group of masked men in black uniforms, driving various dark-colored trucks, ordered them out of the house at gunpoint. Hours later, the kidnappers returned for the technicians' tools and vehicles. Since then, there has been no trace of them.

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The case led the Senate to approve a memorandum in December 2009, calling on the federal authorities to: "Take the necessary steps to work with local and municipal security agencies in the state of Tamaulipas on investigations to swiftly locate the nine Sinaloans who went missing in Nuevo Laredo."

The case may be related to the workers' origins. The Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel are arch-rivals. And the victims, according to Senator Mario Lopez Valdez, had been warned not to enter the territory of Nuevo Laredo, because of the insecurity in the state, and because they were Sinaloa natives, "which made them unwelcome."

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Despite the federal plea for action, the investigation has stalled.

"They Get in the Way"

On January 27, 2009 -- 48 hours after the engineer Jose Antonio Robledo was kidnapped in Monclava, Coahuila, while speaking to his fiancee -- his parents, Guadalupe Fernandez y Jose Antonio Robledo Chavarria, reported the case in person to the state and municipal authorities. Their efforts lead nowhere.

"There is a lot of inefficiency and apathy on the part of the authorities," Guadalupe said. "In Monclova, even the officials at the Public Ministry made it clear that the fate of our son was not important to them."

However, in those first few days, they clinged to hope. Three days after speaking to the state and municipal authorities, they reported their case to the Attorney General's Office. Then they waited for a phone call, a demand for ransom. Instead, they got a visit from the ICA security chief, Joaquin Benito de Angel. He came with two others who said they members of the Zetas.

"They told us not to go to the police and that they controlled the ministerial police in Monclova as well as in Saltillo. They said that they were going to help us, and that our contact would be ICA's security chief," recounted Guadalupe. "They had all the information that we had given to the authorities. We talked for 15 minutes with those men, and as soon as the conversation ended and they left, we fled from the hotel and went straight to Saltillo to see deputy state prosecutor (Jesus) Torres Charles. We told him everything. We were very frightened, but he refused to add the information to the kidnapping report. 'It would risk the life of your son. Don't risk it,' he told us."

"Sometimes we feel terrible. We think that maybe it would have been better to negotiate with them, with the criminals, instead of trying to do things via the legal channels," Jose, Jose Antonio's father, said.

Torres Charles rose to become state attorney general and legal advisor to the current Governor Ruben Moreira, but then in February 2012, he was removed from public administration when it was discovered that his brother, Humberto Torres Charles, who worked for the Attorney General's Office in Coahuila, was taking 300,000 pesos a month from organized criminal groups in exchange for protection. Currently, the Attorney General's Office is offering a three million pesos reward to anyone who can give information leading to the capture of Humberto Torres Charles. Claudia Gonzalez Lopez, ex-delegate of the same federal institution in Coahuila, is also being held for her alleged links to the Zetas.

The Attorney General's Office told Jose Antonio's parents that five other engineers of ICA had also disappeared. Last year, the family of an ICA welder, who also disappeared in Monclova, approached them; they lost touch when that family stopped contacting them, perhaps out of fear. They found another case, an ICA engineer kidnapped in Michoacan, and the company admitted that some technicians had been taken, but it offered little support.

"Our son had been working for the company for a year and three months," Guadalupe said. "They sent him to Monclova, and when he disappeared, they didn't tell us anything. The only reason we found out anything was because his girlfriend was talking to him over the telephone when he was attacked.

"Two days after the kidnapping, on January 27, 2009, ICA distanced itself. They told us that whatever we did or wanted to do was our own business, that the company was not involved...The only thing that I managed to tell [them] was that my son had not arrived alone in Coahuila, that the company had brought him there, and that if they weren't going to do anything for him, we, his parents, would do it ourselves."

The disappearance has them still clamoring for answers.

"We know that the reason wasn't to get money from the family," Guadalupe explained. "Because they never got in touch with us to demand a ransom payment.

"We also know that the Zetas charge an operating tax from ICA, and that there are threats against their employees if they don't pay. In fact, this money is handed over to the criminals by two of the company's employees, colleagues of my son: Joaquin Benito, security chief, and the driver who took Jose Antonio from his house to work, and in whose car they found a submachine gun and 148 packets of cocaine."

The ICA employees, and three other accomplices, are now in prison. But they have refused to reveal what they did with Jose Antonio. They are charged with criminal conspiracy, murder and kidnapping.

Jose, Jose Antonio's father, says one of those detained was responsible for charging the "operating tax" from the companies that provided services to ICA. Jose Antonio was the one who made sure those firms fulfilled the technical requirements. Jose's theory is that it might have annoyed the criminal groups that Jose Antonio may have cut some of the companies that did not fulfill the requirements, but had already paid their quota to organized crime. Their utility was therefore measured by their ability to pay the criminals rather than do the work they were contracted to do.

When asked if it is possible that, given his professional profile, his son may still be alive, held prisoner by a criminal group, Jose hardened his gaze and measured his response word by word.

"I know that my son could have been useful to them: he spoke perfect English and had experienced with antennas. He could well be useful for setting up communications systems or for building clandestine airstrips...However, the situation in Mexico is not like that in Colombia, where the armed groups control areas of land where the criminals can keep their hostages prisoner for a long time, and with some measure of comfort.

"In Mexico there is a violence which is so primitive, so aggressive, so murderous, that even though some of the captives are initially used by the criminals, employed by them, I think that after a while the prisoners would get in the way. After they have been exploited, they become a danger...I hope they have him working somewhere, but I think that organized crime doesn't need to hold them indefinitely. When they need specialists they catch them, use them, and discard them; and when they need specialists again, well, they take more."

 *Paris Martinez is a reporter for Animal Político

 [See the complete special report by Animal Político here.]

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