Kidnapping South Heads North

The seriousness of the violence that is commonplace south of the US border has become staggering. As drug traffickers battle over control and entry points into US cities, murder and related crimes have almost destroyed the structure of Mexican law enforcement and continue to threaten the ability of American police to preserve safety in border state communities.

A recent article in the Global Security and Intelligence Report by Fred Burton and Scott Stewart had this to say on crime—specifically kidnapping(an excerpt):

...But of all the crimes committed by these gangs, perhaps the one that creates the most widespread psychological and emotional damage is kidnapping, which also is one of the most under-reported crimes. There is no accurate figure for the number of kidnappings that occur in Mexico each year. All of the data regarding kidnapping is based on partial crime statistics and anecdotal accounts and, in the end, can produce only best-guess estimates.

Despite this lack of hard data, however, there is little doubt — based even on the low end of these estimates that Mexico has become the kidnapping capital of the world.

One of the difficult things about studying kidnapping in Mexico is that the crime not only is widespread, affecting almost every corner of the country, but also is executed by a wide range of actors who possess varying levels of professionalism — and very different motives.

At one end of the spectrum are the high-end kidnapping gangs that abduct high-net-worth individuals and demand ransoms in the millions of dollars. Such groups employ teams of operatives who carry out specialized tasks such as collecting intelligence, conducting surveillance, snatching the target, negotiating with the victim's family and establishing and guarding the safe houses.

At the other end of the spectrum are gangs that roam the streets and randomly kidnap targets of opportunity. These gangs are generally less professional than the high-end gangs and often will hold a victim for only a short time. In many instances, these groups hold the victim just long enough to use the victim's ATM card to drain his or her checking account, or to receive a small ransom of perhaps several hundred or a few thousand dollars from the family.

This type of opportunistic kidnapping is often referred to as an express kidnapping. Sometimes express kidnapping victims are held in the trunk of a car for the duration of their ordeal, which can sometimes last for days if the victim has a large amount in a checking account and a small daily ATM withdrawal limit.

Other times, if an express kidnapping gang discovers it has grabbed a high-value target by accident, the gang will hold the victim longer and demand a much higher ransom. Occasionally, these express kidnapping groups will even "sell" a high-value victim to a more professional kidnapping gang.

Between these extremes there is a wide range of groups that fall somewhere in the middle. These are the groups that might target a bank vice president or branch manager rather than the bank's CEO, or that might kidnap the owner of a restaurant or other small business rather than a wealthy industrialist.

The presence of such a broad spectrum of kidnapping groups ensures that almost no segment of the population is immune from the kidnapping threat. In recent years, the sheer magnitude of the threat in Mexico and the fear it generates has led to a crime called virtual kidnapping.

In a virtual kidnapping, the victim is not really kidnapped. Instead, the criminals seek to convince a target's family that a kidnapping has occurred, and then use threats and psychological pressure to force the family to pay a quick ransom.

Although virtual kidnapping has been around for several years, unwitting families continue to fall for the scam, which is a source of easy money. Some virtual kidnappings have even been conducted by criminals using telephones inside prisons.

As noted above, the motives for kidnapping vary. Many of the kidnappings that occur in Mexico are not conducted for ransom. Often the drug cartels will kidnap members of rival gangs or government officials in order to torture and execute them. This torture is conducted to extract information, intimidate rivals and, apparently in some cases, just to have a little fun.

The bodies of such victims are frequently found beheaded or otherwise mutilated. Other times, cartel gunmen will kidnap drug dealers who are tardy in payments or who refuse to pay the "tax" required to operate in the cartel's area of control…

As expected, this violence continues to move North. The Houston Chronicle recently had a story describing crimes by drug cartels like the kidnapping styles discussed by Burton and Stewart:

…Houston has long been a major staging ground for importing illegal drugs from Mexico and shipping them to the rest of the United States, but a recent Department of Justice report notes it is one of 230 cities where cartels maintain distribution networks and supply lines.

“I thought I was going to die for sure,” recalled David DeLeon, a used-car dealer who was kidnapped on Airline Drive and severely beaten while being held for ransom, also in 2006. He was rescued by Houston police, but not before he was punched, kicked and thrown across a room so much that his face was unrecognizable.

Authorities say the kidnappers were low-ranking thugs working for a cartel cell.

In another instance, men armed with assault rifles attacked a Houston home. The resident used a handgun to kill one and wound another before the survivors left…
The Burton and Scott article discusses the psychological effect that kidnappings have on the law-abiding public. The Spanish-speaking community in my previous community, had to deal with numerous violent crimes that often went unreported to police. The agency where I was employed had to perform lots of outreach to begin to build trust among the Spanish-speaking citizens—-in hopes that members would be more likely to report kidnappings and robberies more frequently.

With violent activities related to cartels expected to continue to increase, it is a humbling thought of the individual and societal impact that drug violence will have in the US over the next few years.


J. J. in Phila said...

In Philadelphia and the suburbs, this also occurs with the Asian community.

Sandra G. said...

We were just talking about the kidnappings in Mexico, and the fear among some Canadians to head there as a tourist.

The rate of kidnappings in Mexico must be enormous. It's appalling, but who knows what the fix is?

Slamdunk said...

Good point JJ--it is certainly not limited to specific communities.

Sandra: I had forgotten about the tourism aspect. I saw a report warning college spring breakers to avoid Mexico due to the violence there--tourism officials in Mexico were obviously not happy.