MATAMOROS, Mexico — They have spotted their stolen vehicles at stoplights, driven by the same gunmen who used them to take their entire family captive last July. They have reported the brazen abduction to every branch of Mexican law enforcement, only to be ignored, or directed someplace else.
For the women of the Cazares family who were kidnapped
with their families for ransom — and who are still searching for five missing
relatives — the official response to their horrific ordeal has been even more
excruciating than the crime itself. Even now, they say, after months of trying
to goad the Mexican authorities into action, they still see criminals they
recognize living large here in this border city, as untouchable as kings.
“We’re completely impotent,” said Zynthia Cazares, 30, an
American citizen who was among those abducted and whose husband, brother and father
are still missing. “No one will help us.”
Six years into a mostly military assault on drug cartels,
impunity across much of Mexico has worsened, and justice is harder to find.
Criminals in Mexico are less likely to be punished now than even just a few
years ago, say current and former government officials and experts who have
studied Mexico’s ailing judiciary, because the authorities have been
overwhelmed by increases in violent crime while corruption, fear and
incompetence have continued to keep the justice system weak.
Many areas now veer toward lawlessness: in 14 of Mexico’s
31 states, the chance of a crime’s leading to trial and sentencing was less
than 1 percent in 2010, according to government figures analyzed by a Mexican
research institute known as Cidac. And since then, experts say, attempts at
reform have stalled as crime and impunity have become cozy partners.
“Crime goes up, diminishing the likelihood of punishment,
which causes crime to rise again,” said Alejandro Hope, a former senior intelligence
officer for Mexico. “And so we go.”
Kidnappings in particular are fueled by this dynamic.
Reported abductions have jumped by more than 300 percent since 2005 — to levels
on par with Mexico’s kidnapping wave in the late 1990s — in part, experts say,
because criminal gangs have become better organized and freer to commit crimes
without being punished.
Some Mexican officials counter that the kidnappings
illustrate the desperation that criminal groups find themselves in after years
of battling the government. These officials argue that the training programs
and increased coordination among the authorities have strengthened the system.
But researchers say that kidnappings, which require teams of captors, safe
houses and a degree of territorial control, flourish when the state is
particularly feeble. Studies also show that kidnappings destroy a city’s sense
of security and its economy even more than murders do.
The Cazares case is a telling example: 18 family members
were taken from three homes in Matamoros over a few hours on the morning of
July 9. Their houses and offices are now shuttered, stripped nearly bare by
Their barbarous calamity has been pieced together through
interviews with a half dozen relatives, personal notes, and correspondence with
Mexican and American authorities.
Even with some details and names left out for security
reasons, the Cazares case shows how border towns like Matamoros — across from
Brownsville, Tex., and with a population of 490,000 — run according to rules
defined less by government than by gangs that exhibit both sophistication and
the heedlessness born of committing crimes in a void, when the chances of
getting caught can barely be measured.
The case also shows how various levels of the Mexican
government pay lip service to helping crime victims, without doing much else.
Even for families with wealth and connections — the
Cazareses’ ranks include government contractors and engineers with decades of
government service — Mexican law enforcement is virtually useless.
“It’s unacceptable,” said one of the women of the Cazares
family, explaining why her family has chosen to speak out. “This has to end.”
It was not yet 5 a.m. when the gunmen — at least eight of
them, many with the high voices of youth — suddenly appeared, first in the
living room and then the bedrooms, wearing fatigues and black masks.
Their white sneakers suggested they were not the
authorities, but they moved quickly as if they had done this before. They
rounded everyone up, blindfolding all but a 9-year-old boy and a girl who
turned 11 that day. They asked the family patriarch to open the safe, then the
gunmen pushed everyone — including Rodolfo Cazares, 36, a symphony conductor
visiting from Germany, and his French wife, Ludivine — into the family’s
The women ended up in the back of a Chevy Suburban,
covered with a sheet. “We couldn’t believe it,” said Mrs. Cazares, Rodolfo’s
wife. “We were afraid, but we were always hopeful that nothing bad would
By 7 a.m., the kidnappers had reached the second home.
“Open the door,” they demanded, guns in hand, as they stood a half block from a
private guard booth for the neighborhood. “We have your brother.”
They collected four more relatives. There was a slight
snag in their plan — a son had escaped, sprinting to the third Cazares home a
few blocks away. But in his haste he must have left the door open because
minutes later, the kidnappers barged in there, too.
The fatigues they wore over their clothes were gone. A
tall man in jeans with the scent of alcohol directed the family from room to
room, holding a pistol to the neck of his guide as he assessed what to steal.
The Cazares men — three middle-aged brothers, one of
their sons and a son-in-law — were kept together. The women and three children,
along with an 84-year-old grandfather, found themselves stuck in other vehicles
for most of the first day. Their captors drove them around the city for hours.
It was clear that they were not worried about getting
caught. They stopped for gas (without paying, the family said) and in their
conversations over portable radios, the men talked mainly about avoiding their
rivals, the Zetas, a ruthless crime syndicate. The police rarely came up, and
no one intervened — not neighbors who saw the abduction, nor strangers who saw
the Cazares women, in their pajamas and shoeless, being moved into a different
car on a busy street around midday.
At one point, the women did hear helicopters overhead.
“We hoped they were coming for us,” said one of the women.
But then the sound faded.
Around nightfall, the kidnappers drove the women to a
house where at least 20 men were drinking and smoking marijuana. Gunfire broke
out. Some of the blindfolded women were suddenly shoved into another SUV, where
— feeling with their hands — they discovered they were sitting next to a dead
The kidnappers nonetheless tried to keep everyone calm.
They said the family was taken by mistake, a claim the Cazareses still believe.
“We’re from the Gulf Cartel,” the men said. “We’re the good guys.”
The bad guys, in the minds of the abductors, were the
Zetas, whose members broke from the Gulf Cartel. And by comparison, the Gulf
Cartel is supposed to represent a lighter shade of darkness, but experts say
that as kidnapping has become more common, brutality has increased. The
government’s focus on killing or detaining cartel leaders has led younger, more
violent criminals into the market.
“Capos are now in their late 20s, or mid-20s and early
30s,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, author of “Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and
the War on Drugs.” “They’re people who have no experience with management, with
negotiations, and who now need to prove themselves.”
The Cazares women said that they feared a few captors,
but that mostly they were treated well. For three nights, teenagers with large
weapons told them they would be set free soon, while guarding them in a
peach-colored house in a crowded neighborhood. Then, around midnight, three
days after they were taken, the kidnappers dropped them off near the loading
dock of a nearby Walmart.
They were free. But what about their husbands?
Ransom and the Authorities
The ransom demands began two days later, with telephone
calls to a Cazares brother who lives in Texas. “It’s a money problem,” the
kidnappers said, a mantra they would repeat, according to notes taken by a
relative. “And money can fix it.”
Documents the Cazareses filed with the police show that
the family said it could provide a few thousand dollars, but instead, the
kidnappers gave the family an extra day or two to get the sum they demanded.
Calls for ransom often mean that the captives will be released, and the Cazares
family made four payments, sending a trusted employee to deliver a total of
$100,000 to Matamoros, first to a grocery store parking lot and then behind a
Communication with the kidnappers was handled solely by
the family. Members spent days and nights sitting around the kitchen table in
Texas waiting for the telephone to ring.
On three occasions, the Cazareses were allowed to speak
with one, then two of the five men still being held. On the first call, the men
held hostage were mostly concerned about their wives and children. (“We were so
in love,” said the wife from the third house that the kidnappers invaded,
fighting back tears at the recollection. “He was my first boyfriend.”)
The second call ended more abruptly when one of the
captives said he wanted to go home. During the final round of calls, on July
27, the kidnappers said they needed only one more payment. The family sent the
cash across the border, waiting to see the white van that the kidnappers had
said would arrive with their loved ones after the money was received. It never
Devastated, the family tried calling the kidnappers’
telephone. But it was out of service that day and forever.
Several weeks later, the Cazareses went to the
authorities. They first had to overcome their fears since more than a fifth of
all kidnappings in Mexico involve police officers or soldiers, according to a
2011 Mexican congressional report, which also explains why kidnapping
statistics are undercounts.
The Cazareses reported the crime because, they said, it
was their only hope. And since they started pushing for an inquiry, the Cazares
women have not stopped. In addition to giving extensive testimony to the local,
state and federal authorities, they have written to Mexico’s attorney general,
human rights officials and Department of Foreign Affairs, as well as President
Felipe Calderón. They have also written to President Obama and Pope Benedict
The response has been defined by minimal effort and cold
The local police initially promised to investigate but a
month later sent the family a form letter saying the case was out of their
jurisdiction. (The department did not respond to e-mails and telephone calls
seeking comment; nor did the mayor of Matamoros.)
In September, state investigators with a 50-member
antikidnapping squad in Tamaulipas took lengthy statements from family members.
But in an interview this month, one of the investigators said that his team had
not questioned any potential suspects or witnesses, nor had investigators
visited relevant locations.
The investigator, Manuel Adolfo Benavides Parra, said his
agency was hoping to get information from two men arrested on federal drug and
weapons charges in late November — men the Cazareses identified as part of the
group that kidnapped them. But Mr. Benavides said federal prosecutors had not
answered requests for information, preventing him from interrogating the two
Meanwhile, an official with the Mexican attorney
general’s office in Tamaulipas insisted that the kidnapping was a state case.
He refused to answer questions about the men in federal custody. “We have
nothing else to say,” he said.
The Cazareses insist that more should have been done by
now. The peach-colored house where they were held, which the family says it has
identified for the federal authorities in official statements, is a logical
starting point. And it is not hard to find. It sits on a street in a crowded
working-class neighborhood a block from a major road. This month, an
electricity bill stuffed into the door — without an envelope, and clearly
visible — showed a spike in service during July, and that the last payment was
made in January 2011. A next-door neighbor said he knew nothing about the
owners, though he admitted there was often suspicious activity there late at
He was one of many Matamoros residents who said they no
longer felt safe in their city. Indeed, the Cazareses are saddened not just by
the loss of their loved ones, but also of their hometown. The neighborhoods
where they grew up are now windswept and filled with for-sale signs. Many of
the Cazares women struggle with depression. They said that a few people in the
federal government had come close to alleviating their pain with offers of help
and letters of reassurance, though even then, hopeful moments have dissipated.
In November, for example, a friend put them in touch with
Deputy Interior Secretary Felipe Zamora Castro, a high-level official who
promised to help. Two days later, Mr. Zamora was killed in the helicopter crash
that also took the life of his boss, Francisco Blake Mora, the interior
Seeking Help Abroad
The Cazareses now say that they are back to square one:
lower-level officials at the Interior Ministry have asked that they file
official paperwork, which means additional delay.
“Not a single Mexican authority will help us,” said
Zynthia Cazares, the sister of Rodolfo, fidgeting with her jewelry in the Texas
home where she now lives amid photographs of the missing and statues of the
Virgin Mary. “God has asked us to have patience, confidence and faith.”
The family has also sought help from abroad. Ludivine
Cazares, Rodolfo’s wife, recently started to rally support in Europe, writing
to French and German officials. The Cazareses are also trying to involve the
United States. The five missing men are all Mexican, but as is common in border
families, many of their relatives are American citizens or legal residents, and
the gang members seem to fear American authority; the 9-year-old boy kidnapped
from the first home was dropped off at the border right away, the kidnappers
told the women, because he was born in the United States to an American mother
who had contacted the F.B.I.
American officials, who were not aware of the Cazares
case, said they, too, were extremely frustrated with Mexico’s lack of progress
on judicial reform, but they added there was little they could do to quickly
remedy a problem of law, culture and bureaucracy.
The Cazareses nonetheless want more. They ask why
American aid sent to help Mexico to fight the drug cartels still seems so
disconnected from victims; why progress — if there is any — seems so slow. “The
American money never reaches the people who really need it,” Zynthia Cazares
said, maintaining that her relatives could still be saved. “We need help. Now.”