Tracking the Evolution of Kidnapping in Mexico

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Kidnappings have increased sharply in Mexico in recent years, and the phenomenon has evolved, producing mass kidnappings, “express” kidnappings, and even “virtual kidnappings,” where the victim never meets their captors.

Earlier this month, Mexican authorities dismantled a 13-person kidnapping gang who posed as taxi drivers in order to find their victims, the majority of whom were women. The gang is believed to have been in operation for at least a year and a half, starting out by carrying out so-called “express” kidnappings. Their modus operandi involved one gang member driving an unlicensed cab, circling Mexico City’s central areas, keeping an eye out for a potential victim, preferably well-dressed and wealthy. Once a victim boarded the taxi, they would be transported to a secure location and forced to hand over credit cards, cash and any valuables they had in their possession. Only when their credit cards had been maxed and all value was extracted from the victims were they released. Many of the victims were sexually assaulted.

The gang eventually moved on to carrying out more traditional kidnappings for ransom, contacting their victims’ families and demanding payments of between 10,000 and 50,000 pesos ($770 – $3,900) to secure their relative’s release. In total, the gang has been linked to 38 kidnappings, involving 16 sexual assaults, three “aggravated kidnappings” and 25 “express” kidnappings, although it is suspected that they have carried out many more.

“Express” kidnappings, of the type carried out by the gang in Mexico City, are becoming more frequent, usually carried out by small, opportunistic criminal gangs, mainly in large urban areas. However, accurate figures are hard to come by as “express” kidnappings are not included in official government kidnap statistics.

Traditional kidnapping has also risen greatly in the last five years. The numbers are startling. In 2000, Mexico recorded 591 kidnappings, a figure that by 2005 had fallen to 325. Since 2006, however, the year in which President Calderon took office and initiated his “drug war,” kidnapping in Mexico has risen by 317 percent, according to conservative government statistics. From the low of 325 in 2005, almost 2,000 kidnappings were reported in Mexico in 2010, the highest number recorded since 1971. The situation seems to be getting worse still. In the first six months of 2011, a total of 692 kidnappings were reported in Mexico, a six percent rise on the same period for 2010, according to statistics compiled by the Secretary General of National Public Safety (SESNSP).

Another innovation to the traditional abduction is mass kidnapping. This is usually carried against vulnerable groups, like undocumented migrants trying to get to the U.S. Groups of dozens of migrants traveling together, mainly from other Central American nations, are abducted en masse by criminal gangs and forced to call their relatives and ask them to send money in exchange for their freedom. Crimes against migrants are generally not included in official government statistics. According to a 2010 report, at least 11,333 immigrants were kidnapped in Mexico during a six month period of 2010. Some of those who have escaped allege that corrupt officials were involved in handing them over to criminal gangs.

Such is the climate of fear around kidnappings in Mexico, that the phenomenon of so-called “virtual” kidnappings has sprung up. Criminals call their victims from an unregistered cell phone, telling them that they must go to a certain location, and not answer phone calls from their family. Then the “kidnappers” call the family, say that their loved one has been taken and will be held until a ransom demand is met. When the family pays, the victim is told that they are allowed to return home — never having come face to face with their captors, or been physically coerced. The ability of criminal groups to persuade victims to, in essence, kidnap themselves, shows just how much fear criminal groups are able to induce in the population.

Potential kidnapping victims are also evolving their strategies in response to the threat, with some wealthy Mexicans reportedly investing in tracking chips implanted under their skin, so that the police will be able to track them if they are abducted.

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