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Abduction of U.S. Security Expert Illustrates Audacity of Criminals in Mexico

"He is one of the most experienced, most professional in the business, a man of many talents who has a lot of personal resources, and I am trusting and praying to God that these things save him," said Max Morales, a Mexican kidnapping negotiator and lawyer with more than two decades of experience in the field, who has worked cases with Batista and considers him a friend. "My hope is that whoever took him realizes that Felix is worth more alive than dead."

Fred Burton, a vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security for Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company that does business in Mexico, said, "It's like the Beirut hostage days down there. You're pretty much on your own. You have to get yourself out of trouble."

The K&R business, Burton said, using the security industry shorthand for the "kidnapping and ransom" specialty, "puts you into these horrible situations. It is very, very dangerous work."

Burton said the kidnappers might have taken Batista "because he was low-hanging fruit. He was someone they could get at and there's money to be made." Or perhaps he was targeted "to send a message to the public safety community, in both the United States and Mexico, that this is our turf," he said. Or it was something personal: "Maybe he had some bad business with someone in the past. A cartel boss, someone. He gives a lot of talks. Who knows how many cartel informants are sitting in that room."

Yet even in Mexico, where villain and cop are often the same, many say the Batista case is a strange one. As his friend Morales put it: "Why snatch Felix? He's not a businessman. He's not a wealthy industrialist with a kidnap insurance contract. He's not a federal agent. So why him?"

Morales was referring to early accounts in the Mexican news media that described Batista as a former FBI agent, an error that could have further endangered him.

Batista worked as a "response coordinator" for ASI Global, a Houston-based firm that provides security experts to help protect business executives and their families from all sorts of risks, including kidnapping and extortion. Charlie LeBlanc, president of ASI Global, confirmed that Batista has more than 20 years' experience in the field and successfully negotiated payment and release in hundreds of cases. A "response coordinator" such as Batista is not hired to jail kidnappers but to secure the release of captives -- he is the middleman.

LeBlanc stressed that Batista was working as an independent contractor, not a full-time employee, and that he was in Mexico on his own, drumming up business. LeBlanc does not believe that Batista was working a kidnapping case at the time of his capture. "We're still hoping for a positive outcome and supporting his family and the investigation," LeBlanc said.

According to Coahuila state investigators, Batista visited Mexico 20 times in the past year. In the spring, he participated in a security conference in Queretaro, a city to the south, where he appears to have acquired contacts in Saltillo. The contacts invited him there to present a series of informal talks with local business leaders.

Batista gave two talks in the area in the days before he disappeared. A businessman who participated in one of the meetings said Batista described the different types of kidnappings and how best to respond. There was no charge for the lecture and no hard sell by Batista offering his services, the businessman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

"He gave practical advice. To keep calm. Not to offer too much to the kidnappers. Not because you don't have the money, you understand me? You have the money. But you don't want the kidnappers to think they can hold you forever," he recalled Batista saying.

The meetings were arranged by Coahuila state public security secretary Fausto Destenave Kuri, who is investigating the case. Destenave has told local news media that Batista was not working for Mexican law enforcement.

According to security camera images in the possession of the police, one of the men who ushered Batista into the waiting vehicle greeted him warmly.

"One of the men comes out of the truck and pats him on the back, just like this," said Coahuila state Attorney General Jesus Torres, illustrating the gesture in his office. "There is no armed commando forcing him."

Before he went off into the night, Batista received phone calls from a friend, the owner of a local security company, named José Pilar Valdez, and from Pilar's adult son, whom Batista had met with at the restaurant.

According to the state attorney general, Pilar himself was kidnapped hours before Batista was snatched but was later released. Mexican investigators say that Pilar appears to have been used to lure Batista into a trap.

A few months ago, Batista appeared on a television show in Mexico hosted by Ana Maria Salazar, who served as an anti-drug official in the Clinton administration. In the interview, Batista said, chillingly, that Mexico was the worst place in the world to be kidnapped, outside of Iraq.

"Mexico unfortunately suffers a much higher incidence of problems in the negotiations. Something happens to the victim. They kill them, they maim them, they rape them," Batista said. He also said that the more time spent with the captors, the more ominous.

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