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Desperate families snub corrupt police in Mexico kidnap epidemic

by Staff Writers
Mexico City (AFP) Aug 18, 2008
In a calm voice, Isabel Miranda Wallace explained how her son's kidnapping transformed her family into a team of sleuths: trailing suspects, taking on false identities, physically capturing kidnappers, and even digging up a body.

"In Mexico, authorities don't care about kidnappers or the families of kidnap victims. They never do anything," Wallace told AFP in her gated home in southern Mexico City, guarded by three armed police she since escaped an assassination attempt last month.

In the three years since her 31-year-old son Hugo was snatched, the search for his captors has taken over Wallace's life. She stopped her work as a teacher on July 12, 2005, the day after he disappeared.

"Why do I continue? Because I think that any mother who has her son stolen from her has to look for him," the 57-year-old said.

With kidnappings at an epidemic pace -- 323 cases in Mexico City in the first half of 2008, according to official figures, and 400 according to a rights group, compared with 438 for the whole of last year -- Mexico has surpassed Colombia as the world's kidnapping center, according to Dutch NGO Pax Christi.

The federal government has proposed new measures to tackle kidnapping in recent weeks, including tougher sentences, and a national security summit on kidnapping is scheduled on Thursday.

But for families affected, there is little patience or trust for state action.

Wallace's family's own efforts led to the arrest of four members of the kidnapping gang, and the leader was a former police officer, Cesar Freyre.

Although the case is extreme, it reflects widespread frustration with the impunity kidnappers exhibit, from whisking off victims in a taxi to empty their bank accounts in "express" kidnappings, to fake kidnappings involving a telephone call and a lie that a relative is being held, to brutal murders after ransoms are paid.

"They say that in Mexico there's a kidnapping for every level of society," said lawyer Max Morales, a kidnapping and security consultant for 20 years.

Kidnappings are also growing more violent.

The recent high-profile kidnapping and assassination of 14-year-old Fernando Marti -- abducted on his way to school in Mexico City with a driver and bodyguard -- in which police were allegedly involved, unleashed a new wave of public anger.

Of 8,000 abductions reported across the country since 1994, according to the National Council for Public Security and Penal Justice, 700 victims died although their families had paid a ransom.

Some blame the violence on the involvement of drug gangs seeking extra money to survive a government crackdown begun in 2006.

But experts say it is also a natural progression as kidnappers compete for more money and renown, cutting off an extra ear or finger from a victim or, in the Marti case, leaving behind a signature flower with the victim's body.

Police involvement is also deep-rooted.

"Today, in 70 or 80 percent of cases, police or ex-police belong to kidnapping groups in Mexico City," Morales told AFP.

Alejandro Marti, the father of Fernando, defended his decision to hire a private negotiator to help find his son, who was abducted at a fake police road block.

"No one is prepared for a kidnapping. Those who took him were wearing uniforms and the last thing we wanted was to hear from the police," he said.

Two actual police officers have now been arrested under suspicion of involvement in the case.

But many Mexicans believe the only way for change is to force their leaders to act, through protests.

Many hope to bring thousands to the streets in a mass protest at the end of the month.

Wallace, meanwhile, is one of the few with the means and determination to continue her own investigation.

Although she now knows her son is dead, having seen gruesome evidence that the kidnappers purchased saws and plastic bags to chop up and dispose of his body, she still wants to find his remains and put him to rest.

Isabel recently paid for a public billboard campaign similar to others she financed to help find victims to testify against suspects she had caught. This time, however, she had a message for the police.

"Three years after the kidnapping of my son, Hugo Wallace, I've done a good part of your work. Would you like to help me find him?"

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