The Untold Price Families in Mexico Have Been Forced to Pay Kidnappers

Kidnappers are multiplying their demands and preying on new targets.

A Mexican soldier stands guard in a street near City Hall in Toluca, Mexico. (Photo: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

Mar 31, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Scott Johnson is a regular TakePart contributor who has headed Newsweek’s Mexico and Baghdad bureaus and is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA.

A couple of months ago Esmerelda Sanchez, a 91-year-old mother of two living in Cuernavaca, Mexico, got a phone call from a stranger. In the background Sanchez heard a younger woman’s voice, slightly muffled and distant, scream out, “Pay them what they want; otherwise they’re going to kill me!” The caller then told Sanchez that he had her daughter and that if she didn’t deposit several thousand pesos into an account by the end of the day she would never see her daughter alive again.

This story was told to me by the woman’s son, Juan, whom I met with in Mexico last week. (Both he and his family members still fear for their safety, so I've agreed not to use their real names.)

Sanchez was terrified, but she had the presence of mind to call her family and some friends, who quickly formulated a plan to determine whether the call was legitimate. They were right to be concerned—about the call itself, of course, but also whether the alleged kidnappers were who they said they were, and if they had who they said they had.

According to Mexican government statistics, kidnappings—both real and virtual—have been rising dramatically, even as awareness about the breadth and scope of the problem has remained relatively muted. Experts believe more than 105,000 people were kidnapped in Mexico in 2012, but official government statistics put the figure at just 1,317. Last year, the official tally increased by about 25 percent, to roughly 1,700, but it's feared the real figure has soared into uncharted territory. And government statistics show the official rate is still increasing, month over month, for January and February of this year as well.

Kidnapping in Mexico has been a problem for several years. Still, says George Grayson, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary, and an expert on the plague of violence sweeping Mexico, “There’s an absolute tsunami of kidnappings right now. The killings in Mexico are terrible, but they largely involve the military, the police, judges, and so forth, all the players. But anybody who's vulnerable is being kidnapped now, and it affects the average citizen.”

Sanchez is one such person. But there are many more. One young woman who works at a small hotel in the Pacific coast town where I’m staying was a victim. When she answered her phone recently an unknown voice told her that armed men had been stationed outside the hotel and that if she didn’t go to the bank and deposit money into a prepaid telephone account number the men would come for her. She paid.

There are many reasons for the increase. One is that the chaos of the last several years of the drug war has, unlikely as it seems, forced traffickers to look for alternative sources of revenue. The Zetas, for instance, former Mexican Special Forces operatives hired by the cartels as enforcers in recent years, branched out on their own. But several members of their leadership were killed in the last two years, including two leaders in 2012 and 2013, which disrupted the Zetas’ ability to generate steady revenue through the drug trade. “They lost their command and control structure,” says Grayson, and increasingly turned to kidnapping to make up for shortfalls.

Grayson explains: “Remaining Zeta operatives needed money badly, and they used their image as sadists to increase kidnappings. In a state like Tabasco, where los Zetas once accounted for the lion’s share of kidnappings, they have been displaced by the gangs such as el Pueblo Unido Contra la Delincuencia, which is fighting for control of major plazas with the Knights Templars. Both groups need money.”

Ordinary people are now increasingly suffering the consequences, a troubling side effect of the drug war’s damage to the country.

There are other reasons too. The police often play a role in kidnappings, which results in a pitifully low reporting rate (perhaps as few as 1 to 2 percent of all kidnappings get reported) and also ensures that victims’ families pay up quickly and efficiently. With cartels splintering, rival gangs have adapted, and their success in the kidnapping industry has bred competition. And finally, the combination of technological developments and a pervasive sense of fear among the public has given prisoners—many of them cartel members and corrupt officials—greater control over virtual kidnapping from behind bars.

This kind of virtual kidnapping is what Sanchez and the hotel worker fell victim to, and what Juan, Sanchez’s son, told me was becoming a problem of “epidemic” proportions.

“Everyone around here is getting these phone calls now,” he said. “That never used to happen. But it's happened to us, to our friends, to our employees. You hear about it all the time, and you know what? People pay. People pay because they're scared and they don't know what to do.”

Foreigners are also finding themselves at risk. Grayson says that in recent months, citizens of Spain, Colombia, and several Central American nations have become victims.

To top it off, virtual kidnappers have taken to accepting lower ransom amounts, but in exchange they have started demanding that their targets provide them with names and numbers of friends and relatives, up to, say, 10 at a time, who will then become the next wave of victims. A pyramid scheme of shakedowns, so to speak.

“If the victim fails to play this game, the desperadoes threaten to take revenge on his or her family,” says Grayson.

In the end, Sanchez’s friends came to the rescue. They fanned out and found her daughter, who was picking up her own daughter from school, and raced them home before the kidnappers had a chance to strike again.

“She was absolutely terrified,” Juan said of his mother. “And so are we. We changed our number, and we don’t answer the phone anymore if we don’t recognize who’s calling.”