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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."

Join the discussion

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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
jcajunque TaRAa L0VeSs YoU 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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Dr. Cal Harris February 11 2014 at 5:35 PM

I wonder if having armed citizens would make it harder for these thugs? The thugs don't seem to have any problem getting automatic weapons (based on the pictures).

This could never happen in Texas unless you found some way to take the guns away from law abiding citizens. We have a substantial number of people walking around with legally concealed weapons that cause people robbing stores, grabbing cars, taking hostages and all of the other things gangs seem comfortable doing in countries that have made it nearly impossible for honest people to defend themselves. Mexican citizens can own guns but it is extremely difficult for them to get them legally.

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2 replies
neutralslamm Dr. Cal Harris February 11 2014 at 6:04 PM

Actually some of the towns there are forming armed militias to battle drug cartels.

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airamrka Dr. Cal Harris February 11 2014 at 7:41 PM

Based on the caption, doctor, it would seem you pontificate without reading.

"Armed men belonging to the Self-Defense Council of Michoacan, (CAM), stands guard at checkpoint" those "thugs" you seem to be concerned with are actually the good guys.

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kubi490 February 11 2014 at 5:20 PM

corrupt government is a worldwide problem always on the take. them first and the rest of the population fend for themselves

for the people of mexico that rebelled and protested and caused this media attention, finally,
brought the mayor alonso and president nieto out of their palaces and out of their hidey holes and put them on the front page, good for you braveheart citizens.

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1 reply
Dr. Cal Harris kubi490 February 11 2014 at 5:40 PM

Good posting. We need to ensure that our USA culture doesn't slip into a state where the majority just give up and let those elected rule them. Mexico is a wonderful country full of great, hard working people.

The problem is that the individual citizen has never had a voice. They really don't have "elections" in Mexico, like most of our neighbors to the south, they have SELECTIONS and the power brokers just take turns ruling. It could happen to us if we continue to nibble at our individual choices and rights that were defined in the Constitution by the founding fathers that feared government corruption and feared a government evolving that no longer heard the voice of the majority.

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1 reply
d.carns Dr. Cal Harris February 11 2014 at 7:24 PM

Already happened; Obama SELECTED twice by corporate and big money backing with uniformed and uneducated people. Remember Obama got the Hisapnic vote. Just like Mexico.

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Master Garry February 11 2014 at 4:45 PM

These are NOT "vigilantes", they are a well armed Militia protecting themselves from cartel thugs and a corrupt Government....

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s February 11 2014 at 4:53 PM

Mexico peaked under Pancho Villa.

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jOSEPHINE February 11 2014 at 3:27 PM

folks like Drew will be the first ones to demand YOU with YOUR guns protect him...lol... such a pansy

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Mike February 11 2014 at 3:26 PM

Gun control didn't work so well here, did it? Now the peasants are starting to arm themselves ( against the law), and the tide is turning against the thugs.

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1 reply
Walt Mike February 11 2014 at 3:34 PM


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3 replies
seeandso February 11 2014 at 2:43 PM

go to iz2.iz1.us and you will see where these criminal gangs/networks are alive and well in the USA law enforcement will go to extremes to make liers out of the victims of these Anti American gangs..we don't need to go to them, they have come to us the fact that they have been allowed to operate in the blatant open for so long and work 7/24 against their American targets lets you know just as the Mexicans understand if you wait for law enforcement/government protect you from these gangs you will die first..America had better wake up..exposure and necessary force is the only solution.

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1 reply
siscosdad seeandso February 11 2014 at 4:23 PM


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lmvdz February 11 2014 at 1:31 PM

A corrupt institution like Mexico's is already here. The Senate and Congress members get PAC money and give the PAC's everything they ask for. Time to squelch the PAC's before we become a corrupt nation like Mexico.

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1 reply
jwosr98 lmvdz February 11 2014 at 1:56 PM

We are already more corrupt than Mexico.

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frankdlu February 11 2014 at 6:18 PM


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