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19/03/2012 | Mexico - The Kidnapping - In Mexico, a Kidnapping Ignored as Crime Worsens

Damien Cave

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 thieves.

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.”

The Kidnapping

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 vehicles.

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 happen.”

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 body.

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 fast-food restaurant.

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 came.

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 XVI.

The response has been defined by minimal effort and cold dismissal.

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 detainees.

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 night.

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 secretary.

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.”

NY Times (Estados Unidos)


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