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Mexicans face nightmare of abductions

A spate of kidnappings has added a new dimension to the violence in Mexico. Police and politicians are often powerless to react due to rampant corruption and bureaucratic obstacles.

Alejandro Marti, sighs, and his eyes are moist. He wistfully confides. "A friend said to me that he wishes he could shoulder the burden I carry for a while, and that's very kind, but of course it's impossible."

That burden is indeed an awful one. The Marti family who established a successful chain of sport stores and gyms, suffered the cruel and horrific crime of kidnapping. Alejandro's 14-year-old son Fernando was abducted on June 4th 2008. He was being driven to school in an armored BMW with a bodyguard, when they were halted at a roadblock by criminals wearing uniforms of Mexico's Federal Investigations Police Unit.

The chauffeur was tortured. All of his teeth were ripped out before he was killed. The bodyguard was throttled and died several days later. But not before providing invaluable evidence.

The Marti family promptly paid a huge undisclosed ransom, complying with the kidnappers demands to the letter. But Fernando's body was found in the trunk of a car almost two months later.

More than 20 people have since been arrested and are still being processed by a ponderous legal system, which still relies on mountains of paperwork hopelessly knotted with red tape. Most of those allegedly involved, belonged to the so-called Flower gang. Their evil signature was to leave a marigold beside victims' bodies. This flower is often associated with the Mexican custom known as the Day of the Dead, when relatives go to cemeteries to remember their dearly departed with floral tributes.

The accused leader of this bunch of kidnappers - Sergio Humberto Ortiz Juarez, a former Mexico City police detective, was shot in a dispute with his own henchmen from the gang. He was subsequently arrested while in hospital and died in 2009, as a result of complications from these wounds.

Changing the law

Alejandro Marti, whose son was kidnapped and murdered by a cartel in 2008. Copyright: Armando Sobrino, September 2012, permission to use photo granted.

Alejandro Marti, whose son was kidnapped and murdered by a cartel in 2008.

The Marti family, which has ample resources, doesn't have to stay in Mexico. Back in 2008, they sold the controlling interest in their company. But, as Alejandro Marti says this is where he was born and where his roots are. Rather than jump on an executive jet and leave, he's stood his ground and used his wealth to honor the memory of his son Fernando by forming a citizens pressure group called Mexico SOS. He's met with President Elect Enrique Peña Nieto and other politicians to provide impassioned but also reasoned input as to how the law can be changed to help catch kidnappers.

Marti explains that telephone companies have the ability via existing tried and tested technology to track cellular phone calls from kidnappers. The snag is that human rights groups in Mexico have objected. The next step is to negotiate an agreement of safeguards, by which this essential law and order tool would only be used in these special circumstances and not be abused.

Rolando Soliz is a former US Secret Service Agent, who was a bodyguard of five US Presidents. A consummate security expert who's been based in Mexico since 1994, he runs Soliz & Associates in the capital Mexico City.

Rolando highlights two incredibly disturbing trends. Since 1994 the proportion of kidnap victims murdered by their abductors in spite of ransom demands being complied with, has surged from between three and five percent to between 18 and 20 percent. Part of the reason is that drug cartels are getting more involved.

The other chilling fact is that less than two percent of kidnappers are ever arrested and fewer still are convicted of the crime. The current figure stands at just one percent. "The primary reason is that many victims don't want to testify. There is no viable witness protection agency in Mexico, to watch over the victims during a trial. So you might be getting a call before you give evidence warning you to be careful of what you say in court 'because we know where you live, where you work, where your wife is and where your children go to school!'"

victim in Mexico's drug war dpa - Bildfunk+++

Kidnappings have surged as drug cartels get more and more involved.

Yet all of this stark nightmare is not the fully accurate portrait, because Rolando readily concedes that barely one in four kidnappings is ever reported to the authorities. In other words, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Rolando says the Mexican government should establish a prominent intelligence gathering agency, giving the general public direct access and thus engendering genuine confidence. Tip offs about suspicious activity is often the key to catching the kidnappers before they have an opportunity to go to the next level and strike.

Simplifying the system

Alejandro Marti says there is general agreement that the present policing system needs to simplified and unified. The federal police has already been reinforced and in each of Mexico's 32 States the Governor is responsible for the overall law and order remit - the buck truly stops at his or her desk. This more direct, yet less elongated chain of command, is known as mando unido, or unified command.

Observers believe that Mexico's Green Party is in a position to make a real difference in combating kidnapping. The reason is that the Greens are allied to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which won Mexico's July presidential election.

A lawyer by trade and vocation, Arturo Escobar is the National Spokesman of the Greens. The Greens initially demanded the death penalty for convicted kidnappers, but Mexico hasn't followed this law and order tradition, and the bill failed in Congress.

Although the Greens insist that their original proposal is still supported by 85 percent of the Mexican people, the law prohibits them from directly re-introducing it. So they've amended it, calling for life imprisonment without parole.

"We're talking about a clear message that says, if you wake up one day, kidnap a person and then kill them, you're then going to be processed by special laws when you're arrested," Escobar told DW.

Escobar says that the whole ethos of Mexico's penal system has to be transformed, and one of the central themes must avoid idle hands, obliging inmates to either be put to work, or study.

"Jails in Mexico have become a university of crime. So we need a whole new perspective, from the Constitution to the ordinary laws, regarding the way in which we treat prisoners and the way we run our jails. So for kidnappers, it's not only life imprisonment, but it's also a whole new concept about the obligation of criminals to pay their debt to society, by being obliged to either work or study."

"To combat and defeat the criminal groups in our country, we need to have better laws, better police officers, better coordination of federal and state police as well as with Mexico's armed forces," he added.

This article is dedicated to the loving memory of Fernando Marti Haik, b December 19th 1993 d August 3rd 2008.

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