Mexico Kidnapping Death Stokes Outrage

Silvia Escalera holds a dove to be freed during the funeral of her daughter, Silvia Vargas, in Mexico City.
Silvia Escalera holds a dove to be freed during the funeral of her daughter, Silvia Vargas, in Mexico City. (By Marco Ugarte -- Associated Press)
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By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 14, 2008

MEXICO CITY, Dec. 14 -- Her mother asked that mourners wear white, so the memorial service Saturday for Silvia Vargas Escalera seemed less grim than the circumstances surrounding one of Mexico's most notorious kidnappings.

The body of the wealthy and vivacious Mexico City teenager was found last weekend buried under a patio in a house south of the city. She had been missing for more than a year. Her remains were identified by dental records and DNA on Thursday.

The abduction and killing of the 18-year-old student, whose fresh young face had been ubiquitous in the news media here for months, have stoked outrage and revulsion in Mexico. The public is frustrated not only by waves of violent and often organized crime, but also by the government's inability to solve cases and put the guilty behind bars.

Many people, too, are afraid of the kidnapping crews, which no longer limit their targets to the super-rich, and travel in armored cars and with bodyguards. Kidnappers now snatch middle-class and even poor victims, demanding as little as $500 in ransom for their return.

The Vargas case is especially gruesome and revealing. Unlike so many kidnappings in Mexico, where victims' families often do not report the abductions and instead attempt to privately negotiate and pay ransoms, the Vargas case played out in public view.

Her father is Nelson Vargas, a former cabinet secretary and former top sports official. The family spoke at emotional news conferences, offered rewards and begged the kidnappers for her return. They put up huge billboards with her photograph. They also performed their own investigation, while accusing the police of bungling the case.

"This was not just a crime against a young woman and her family, but a crime against the public. It stokes this sense in Mexico that no one is really safe, that anyone can come and grab you off the street. And that the police are useless or worse," said Ricardo Ainslie, director of a documentary film, "¡Ya Basta!" on the rash of Mexican kidnappings and professor at the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas. "It makes people feel angry and then hopeless. It is like a collective trauma."

The Vargas family posted its invitation to the Saturday memorial service on the Internet. After her remains were identified Thursday, the family issued a statement that began: "We know that Silvia is with God. We ask everyone to pray for her and all those people who have suffered the same pain that we have felt since Sept. 10, 2007," when she disappeared on her way to classes. A week later, the kidnappers sent her family a bag of her belongings, a so-called proof of life that often begins ransom negotiations.

At the memorial service before an afternoon Mass, a line of mourners, many dressed in white, hugged the parents and siblings, who stood before a large portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. In the back of the hall was a wall covered with snapshots of Silvia Vargas -- as a child at the zoo, as a girl playing at the beach, as a young woman, her arms draped around her father's neck. Mexican President Felipe Calderón was one of the first to arrive to pay his respects.

Last month, after Silvia had been missing for more than a year, her family held a dramatic news conference that drew back the curtain on how the Mexican police investigate kidnapping cases. Fighting back tears, Nelson Vargas said, "I have cried. I have begged. I am now demanding that Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora and Public Safety Secretary Genaro García Luna resolve this case." Medina and Garcia are Mexico's top federal law enforcement officials.

"Find my daughter," Vargas said. "Find my Silvia."

Vargas revealed that early on, the family suspected that their former driver, Oscar Ortiz, may have been involved. Vargas said he told police his suspicions. Only later, Vargas said, did a tipster who had seen news coverage of the case tell him that Ortiz's brother was one of Mexico's top kidnapping suspects.

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