Tim Padgett & Dolly Mascarenas
There are two kinds of kidnappings in Mexico: those meant for ransom and those meant as a warning. This month's abduction of Felix Batista in the northern state of Coahuila was most likely the latter — and it's one of the more chilling messages that Mexico's ubiquitous police-linked kidnapping industry has ever sent.
Batista, a U.S. citizen who works for ASI Global, a Houston-based security company, is a prominent expert on how to avert kidnapping. Ironically, he was nabbed in the industrial city of Saltillo after giving antiabduction seminars to businessmen last week — classes that few others but local cops knew about. A Coahuila source familiar with the investigation tells TIME that one of the executives with Batista was also kidnapped but was returned, badly beaten, earlier this week. The abductors' unspoken warning to Mexican and U.S. officials alike: We will no longer tolerate anyone who makes our work more difficult. "Sometimes a kidnapping group takes someone not so much for money but to coerce," says Mexican security expert Arturo Alvarado of the Colegio de Mexico. "This sounds like one of those times."
It's little surprise that Batista, who has worked as an antikidnapping instructor and kidnapping-release negotiator all over Mexico, was taken in Coahuila. Just as Mexico's powerful drug cartels have lashed out with an insurgency against President Felipe Calderón's anti-narco offensive — Mexico has had more than 5,000 drug-related murders this year, double last year's record — kidnapping bosses in Coahuila, on the border with Texas, are fighting back against the state government's antiabduction crusade. Batista was a consultant to Enrique Martinez, who was Coahuila's governor from 1999 to 2005, and he greatly reduced kidnappings there. Martinez's successor, Governor Humberto Moreira, has even called for Mexico to revive the death penalty, at least in abduction cases that end in homicide. (See pictures of Mexico's police.)
As a result, two directors of the state's recently created antikidnapping unit have been abducted and are still missing. Many believe Batista's kidnapping is part of that counteroffensive. "This is clearly a message to back off," says a former Mexican senator.
U.S. officials will not comment yet on Batista's case. But as ASI, his family and Mexican authorities now try to win his release, Batista, a Cuban American from Miami, can only hope they're using a negotiator as talented as he is. Dozens of Mexican families who have endured kidnapping ordeals praise him. Says one Mexican who watched Batista successfully broker the releases of a relative and a friend, "He is resourceful and honest, something that one needs in these cases." (See the top 10 news stories of 2008.)
Public security in Mexico has all but collapsed under the blood-soaked weight of a drug cartel war and an equally vicious convulsion of criminal abduction. Kidnapping is such a booming business south of the border that an astonishing 5% of the country's 106 million people report having been a victim or having known one, according to a new survey by the Mexican polling firm Gabinete de Comunicacion Estrategica. In the same poll, 45% of Mexicans who have a phone line said they've been victims of telephone extortion, in which persons call a residence, claim they've abducted a family member and demand a ransom. Often the claims of abduction are false; but either way, because the fear of kidnapping is so high in Mexico, the callers usually get money.
Worse, a growing number of Mexican kidnappings end up as murders — including the cases of two affluent teenagers found killed this year in Mexico City. The family of one, Fernando Marti, 14, had actually already paid a ransom of more than $2 million. Even those victims who are spared are increasingly returned with body parts like ears missing: their abductors send them to relatives to frighten them into delivering ransom more quickly. "We cannot live under this pressure," says one upper-middle-class Saltillo woman who has seen several family members kidnapped in recent years. "All the time we are looking over our shoulder, the car windows always up, ringing the children on the cell at all times, having special passwords and codes in case, God forbid, of 'trouble.' This is not a life." (See pictures of Mexico's drug wars.)
Batista's Dec. 10 kidnapping seems to point to a likely source of that scared life: Mexican police. Not because they fail to catch the kidnappers but because they often are the kidnappers. Sometimes narco-criminals, especially the notorious Zetas gang, do the deed; but since Mexico's abduction spree began more than a decade ago, cops have almost always been involved (as they often are in narco-related crime as well). Federal police officers who allegedly form a kidnapping gang called La Banda de la Flor (the Flower Gang) were recently arrested in the case of Marti, whose decomposed body was found in a car trunk last summer. He had been kidnapped two months before when the armored car he was riding in was stopped at a federal police checkpoint.
According to Reporte Indigo, a prominent Mexican online newsmagazine, government memos show that federal authorities had known about La Banda's kidnapping activities as early as five years ago but did nothing to stop them. Says Luis Simon, a friend of another young abduction-murder victim in Mexico City, Silvia Vargas, "Silvia was a victim not only of the kidnappers but also of our authorities."
Mexico's criminal police are a product of the financial neglect and social scorn heaped on public law enforcement by the country's élite — the same ostentatiously upper-crust families who are now rampant kidnapping targets. Either way, cops are the main reason only 2% of Mexico's criminal cases are ever solved, according to the National Commission for Human Rights. Officially, Mexico is second only to war-torn Colombia in the number of kidnappings, but many security experts believe Mexico may have overtaken the South American nation in recent years. Thousands of abductions take place each year, they note, but only hundreds actually get reported because most families are too reluctant to seek out the very same police they assume are in on the abduction in the first place.