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Mexico's Kidnapping Battle Tested in Farm Town

Mexico Vigilantes
Gunmen grabbed a taxi driver near his home in this bustling central Mexico farm town in December and demanded a $3,000 ransom. His family paid but his captors killed him anyway.

A 22-year-old student was taken, slain and dumped by a highway after his family failed to produce $30,000. Gunmen broke into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, picked out a hardware store owner, kidnapped and killed him, too.

In December alone, at least seven people were kidnapped in this town of 100,000 people, according to a tally by community organizers. All but one was slain, several after a ransom was paid to kidnappers that officials describe as a fragment of a nationwide drug cartel looking for new sources of income after authorities arrested and killed many of its leaders.

Frightened and furious, residents launched a series of protests outside city hall demanding government action. The state's tough-talking new public security chief took control of the municipal police department last month and sent hundreds of state police to Yautepec, promising prompt arrests.

But in this proving ground in Mexico's fight against a nationwide surge in kidnappings, people are still staying home after dark, watching the streets for strange cars and feeling sick with dread whenever a loved one didn't come home on time.

Residents say the reinforcements are welcome but they have no confidence that government institutions they claim are rotten with corruption can have any real long-term impact on a problem that has reached epidemic proportions in this sunbaked stretch of sugarcane and tomato fields dotted with the weekend homes of Mexico City's upper-middle class.

The mayor dismisses their complaints as politically inspired "psychosis." In the absence of genuine statistics, no one really knows.

"At this moment there are roadblocks but we don't see any investigation. There's no information. That's the reason for the people's sense of impotence, for their grief," said Israel Serna, a state lawmaker for the leftist Citizens' Movement party who participated in the marches on city hall. "The people don't see their leader, their mayor, their congressman, facing the problem, so people start to organize."

Even officials acknowledge that the kidnapping spike is a direct result of Mexico's crackdown on organized crime. As the country waged its U.S.-backed offensive over seven years, larger gangs were dismantled. Thousands of lower-ranking criminals diversified into kidnapping, targeting prosperous and working-class families in places like Yautepec as quick, easy sources of cash. Last year, as Mexico and the U.S. touted the arrests of capos and said organized-crime-related murders were down, reported kidnappings hit a 16-year high.

The official count was 1,695 but government polls show that less than 2 percent of kidnappings are reported to police. If accurate, the real number of abductions would exceed 100,000 a year.

Yautepec sits in the center a relatively prosperous and heavily populated stretch of suburbanizing countryside that stretches east from Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos, the second smallest of Mexico's 31 states and among the top five in kidnappings per capita, according to federal statistics. Cuernavaca is one of the historic bases of the Beltran-Leyva cartel, a once-powerful drug-trafficking organization splintered in recent years by killings and arrests of its commanders.

One cell of Beltran-Leyva gunmen began kidnapping members of the state's rising middle class - shopkeepers, schoolteachers and prosperous farmers living along 30 miles of federal highway that slices from Cuernavaca through Yautepec to the larger city of Cuautla, said Jesus Alberto Capella, a former Tijuana police chief named last month as secretary of public security in Morelos.

"The lieutenants, the orphans, dedicated themselves to this type of criminal activity," Capella said. "The crisis in Yautepec has to do with this criminal group carrying out kidnappings more crudely than we're used to, killing its victims, who don't have great financial resources."

Cappella and the Morelos state prosecutor say they are looking hard at local government complicity with the kidnappers.

"Criminal organizations couldn't succeed anywhere in the world, carrying out such serious crimes, if they aren't helped by corrupt police, corrupt prosecutors, corrupt judges, corrupt institutions," Cappella said. "The most important war is the war in the streets, against criminality. The harder war is the second one, inside our institutions."

Yautepec Mayor Agustin Alonso said he knows he is under suspicion.

"We're all under investigation, all of us, even me, and since I have nothing to hide, here I am," he said. "My life is an open book."

Alonso, a member of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, said he knows of only six kidnappings in the city since he become mayor a year ago and dismisses the protests as spawned by false reports of kidnappings spread by members of opposing political parties who want to push him out of office.

"The people's fear created a psychosis and now they're assuming that a lot of people have been kidnapped when that isn't the case," he said. "Now they're reporting 10 kidnappings in a week that never happened. What's the goal? Maybe it's political ... I see political figures in these marches who want to tell the people, 'Look, I'm the solution. Vote for me.'"

President Enrique Pena Nieto pledged during his 2012 campaign that he would swiftly and sharply reduce the crimes that most affect ordinary Mexicans - homicide, kidnapping and extortion.

Under pressure, his administration announced on Jan. 28 that it was launching a 10-point anti-kidnapping strategy to be led by a new national anti-kidnapping czar, who told reporters that kidnapping had become "a national emergency."

The administration promised better coordination between state, federal and local governments, retraining of ineffective anti-kidnapping police units, development of a national database of kidnapping reports and tighter control of prisons where inmates run kidnapping rings from behind bars.

"Kidnapping can't be a crime that's profitable and low-risk for criminals," said Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, the country's most powerful law enforcement official.

That's exactly what it has become in Morelos, a short drive south of Mexico City.

Among the demonstrators outside Alonso's office has been Maria Ruth Gonzalez Vidales, 55, who owns a small clothing shop in the center of town. Her husband is an auto mechanic.

In 2012, their son Cesar, a 33-year-old architect and engineer, was kidnapped as he drove through Cuernavaca to visit his family in Yautepec. The family got together $10,000 and left it in packets of $2,000 in a cereal box in Cuernavaca. Five days later their son was found dead in the trunk of his car, a few hundred feet from the office of the state prosecutor, where the family had just reported him kidnapped.

"They haven't caught anybody," she said. "It's as if the kidnappers are saying to themselves, 'Nothing is going to happen, we'll keep up our wave of violence, of kidnappings, and no one will do anything.'"

She says she has no fear of retaliation for participating in the marches on city hall.

"I feel as if I'm already dead," she said. "I'm not afraid of anyone seeing me. I want everyone to know. I'm going to keep going and one day these people will pay."

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180 Comments
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tcbassguitar1 February 12 2014 at 2:30 AM

Simple answer, arm the citizens, let them defend themselves, when the criminals start dying, they will think twice about what is happening to them,,

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Penny Crystal February 12 2014 at 2:11 AM

its coming to the usa thanks obama

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Jim February 12 2014 at 1:04 AM

Holder gave people like the kidnappers guns and Obama and the DNC want to give them amnisty for illegal border crossing yea I can see this is good for America (not).

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grtsch6134 February 12 2014 at 12:35 AM

....gee, oh my..........americans should learn from the compassionate point of view of other countries. oh, gosh, gee....... we should abolish the death penalty, because it's never , ever okay to kill--never, ever, ever. mean people who hack other people up with machetes, and leave their bloodied heads lying about are.......MISUNDERSTOOD. we should rise above the tendency to seek revenge. we should align ourselves with murderers, and understand them........our enlightenment will be rewarded............

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stepnet3 February 12 2014 at 12:27 AM

And Obama wants open borders.... Thank you Barry for selling American to anyone who will pay.

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2 replies to stepnet3's comment
grtsch6134 February 12 2014 at 12:36 AM

obama has sent more illegals back home than any other recent president.

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ydkmvw February 12 2014 at 1:44 AM

This country was sold long before Obama.

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TaRAa L0VeSs YoU February 12 2014 at 12:00 AM

so now we know our future here in the usa

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1 reply to TaRAa L0VeSs YoU's comment
jcajunque February 12 2014 at 2:15 AM

If our people weren't using drugs, there wouldn't be any cartels. Or if we legalized the junk and had treatment centers paid for by the tax on the drugs then the cartels would be out of business.

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relicsvirginia February 11 2014 at 11:59 PM

To many people in high places bought off. this will never stop.

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straight2spam February 11 2014 at 10:33 PM

WOW,ALMOST SAYING THAT MEXICO COUNTRY SUCKS.

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freedrsty2 February 11 2014 at 10:33 PM

Now that we are pulling out of Iraq and Afganistan, why don't we give aid to Mexico which is on our own border and needs help desperately. This drug war thing has been going on since the early 70's and is getting worse. It bleeds over into the US frequently. Why have the American Public not cried out about it.....lets help our neighbor Mexico.

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kingofswords72 February 11 2014 at 11:21 PM

Bleeds over into the U.S.?

If it weren't for all the drug users in the U.S. this drug war would never exist. The American public doesn't cry out about it because they are the ones buying the drugs that the murderous cartels supply them. The only way to help Mexico is to stop the drug war and close the border and let them fend for themselves.

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2 replies to kingofswords72's comment
xdrumline1 February 12 2014 at 2:24 AM

Or, it could be said if it weren't for all the cartels, US wouldn't have a drug problem!

tit for tat. It goes BOTH ways, but starts with the dealers. If there were no dealers, there would be nothing to peddle around.

But for starters, yes, shut the borders down.

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thinkfirst February 12 2014 at 3:44 AM

Kingofswords72, you have an accurate grasp of American's demand for drugs being the driving force behind the cartels and ever increasing volumes of drugs entering the U.S.. The reason for the increased violence among traffikers is the percieved invincibility (money breeds arrogance and contempt) coupled with a complete disregard for life (thier own as well as others - the end of being rich and powerful justifies the means and without wealth and power, life is valueless.). The apathy shown by Americans is absolutely due to the fact that a very large portion of our society actively partake of the illegal drugs and really do not want the supply cut off because it would be inconvenient and painful to do without thier vice. The way to fix this is to design appropriate punishments for users - not a popular idea but it would be effective and prevent further degredation of our society by users who are high and either can not or do not want to do thier jobs ( that is the reality of the effects of drug use on society - eventually nobody will be able to get anything done well or in an efficient manner due to the effect of drugs on the predominantly drug using workforce ). Cracking down on users is how America can and should help Mexico and ourselves at the same time - break the demand cycle and the supply cycle will evaporate on it's own. Legalization would only help the State profit at the expense of the cartels - which might be appealing to some and even construed as a good thing on one hand, but it would also be putting another nail in the coffin of American workforce productivity and efficency which is already suffering.

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chris February 11 2014 at 7:58 PM

us populations will never give up our guns cause that's what would happen hear

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straight2spam February 11 2014 at 10:35 PM

NO DOUGHT ABOUT IT, STAY ARMED AND PREPAR.

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stepnet3 February 12 2014 at 12:26 AM

Get a clue Chris - they are coming to take our guns. Hilary is pushing a UN Agenda to disarm Americans. It failed in the Senate by 6 votes. Why do they need to swipe your diver's license in California to buy ammo? The record keeping has started as more and more weapons are banned.

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