Pubdate: Tue, 5 Aug 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Page: Front Page
Author: Marla Dickerson
Note: Times staff writer Reed Johnson contributed to this report.
Bookmark: (Mexico)

Mexico Under Siege


As Kidnappings Rise, Many Are Afraid to Contact Authorities, for Fear 
They'Re Involved.

MEXICO CITY -- When their 14-year-old son was snatched off the street 
by armed men in early June, the Marti family reportedly did what many 
wealthy Mexicans do in such a crisis.

The founders of a chain of sporting goods stores hired a private 
negotiator to deal directly with the kidnappers. They said nothing to 
police or to the press. They paid millions of dollars in ransom 
money. Then they waited for a signal that the boy had been released.

It was not to be.

Fernando Marti's decomposed, bullet-riddled body was found Friday in 
the trunk of a stolen Chevy that had been abandoned in a 
working-class Mexico City neighborhood. For many, Monday's news was 
equally bad: Authorities said they had arrested at least one city 
police commander in connection with the crime, and that other cops 
might be involved.

The possibility of police involvement comes at an awkward time for 
President Felipe Calderon, who has been waging a high-stakes war 
against violent drug cartels since taking office in December 2006.

The campaign against drug gangs as well as other violent criminals 
has been repeatedly compromised by corrupt police officers, pushing 
Calderon to turn to the army. As of June, 40,000 soldiers and 5,000 
federal police were deployed nationwide. The administration last week 
also launched a shake-up at the federal attorney general's office in 
response to the agency's ineffectiveness. Officials said Monday that 
a prosecutor who oversaw extradition of drug traffickers had 
resigned, the second high-ranking official to leave the attorney 
general's office in a week.

Although Mexico City police say they don't think the gang that 
kidnapped Fernando was involved in the narcotics trade, many other 
kidnappers may be. Under pressure from the federal crackdown, some 
gangs appear to be ratcheting up kidnapping and extortion to make up 
for shrinking drug profits.

"The authorities knew that if they attacked the drug trafficking and 
took away that cash flow that the delinquents would look for 
something else," said Maria Elena Morera, head of a citizens 
anti-crime organization in Mexico City. "The tragic death of Fernando 
Marti symbolizes what many Mexicans are living through."

There is no question that kidnappings in Mexico are soaring, 
particularly in trafficking hot spots along the U.S. border, where 
criminals have found easy targets among business owners, doctors and 
other professionals who have prospered in the region.

Last year, 438 Mexicans were reportedly abducted, according to 
official government statistics. That's a 34% increase over 2006. But 
it's believed to be just a fraction of the true number. Experts say 
many Mexicans are reluctant to contact police out of fear that 
officers are involved in the kidnapping and will harm their loved 
ones if they don't cooperate.

Tijuana is believed to suffer more kidnappings than any city in the 
world outside Baghdad, according to a global security firm that 
handles ransom negotiations south of the border. Hundreds of 
residents have been abducted for ransom in recent years, according to 
victim support groups.

The arrival of thousands of federal troops has helped fracture drug 
cartels and in some cases sent them in search of new avenues to make money.

Heavily armed gunmen, often posing as police or working in tandem 
with crooked cops, have snatched people from shopping centers, 
restaurants and parking lots. They imprison their victims in networks 
of safe houses, shackling and blindfolding them. Kidnappers sometimes 
amputate their victims' fingers or ears and send them to family 
members to terrify relatives into paying up.

"The crime of kidnapping is one of the most painful because it 
affects the victim, the families and friends," said Morera, whose 
husband was kidnapped. He survived the ordeal, but had several 
fingers sliced off.

The surge in kidnappings has motivated thousands of well-to-do 
Mexicans to flee the country or surround themselves with security.

That was apparently the case with the Marti family.

Fernando's father, Alejandro, is a well-known businessman who founded 
a popular sporting goods chain and a string of fitness centers. A 
self-made entrepreneur, he got his start hawking T-shirts during 
Mexico City's 1968 Olympics.

Authorities have released almost no information about the Marti case. 
But according to press reports, Fernando was riding in a car with a 
driver and a bodyguard on June 4 when the group was pulled over by 
men who they thought were police. Armed men killed the adults at the 
scene and abducted the boy.

One press report said the family paid $6 million for the boy's 
release and waited in agony after the kidnappers stopped 
communicating with them.

The news the Martis had dreaded came Friday when residents of a tough 
Mexico City neighborhood reported a noxious smell coming from a 
silver subcompact parked on a residential street. Police found 
Fernando's body in the trunk. He had been shot several times. 
Forensic experts said he may have been dead for as long as a month.

More than 800 kidnap victims have been killed in Mexico since 1970, 
according to Jose Antonio Ortega Sanchez, president of another 
citizens anti-crime group, who added that the mayhem was shaking the 
country to its foundations.

"Here's the problem: the corruption, the collusion and the 
involvement of the authorities. . . . If Calderon can't clean up his 
own security agencies, he's not going to be able to advance," he said.

Fernando was buried Sunday. A front-page photo in the national daily 
Reforma showed a black hearse followed by a procession of luxury 
cars. There were so many flowers, according to one report, that they 
had to be transported to the cemetery in a cargo truck.

The pages of the capital's newspapers overflowed with sympathy 
announcements from the family's business associates and friends, as 
well as angry letters to the editor.

"Mexico is submerged in an abyss of blood and uncertainty, 
inconceivable and interminable," read one.

Mexico City police on Monday identified the arrested police commander 
as Jose Luis Romero Jaimes, but provided no other information about him.

Also taken into custody was Marco Antonio Moreno Jimenez. News 
reports had originally identified Moreno Jimenez as a member of the 
federal police, but capital authorities denied that.
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