Mexican politician 'El Jefe' Diego freed after 7 months in captivity

Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 20, 2010; 7:16 PM

MEXICO CITY - Emerging with a long, white beard like Santa Claus or a castaway from a desert isle, a former presidential candidate and political heavyweight who was one of the most notorious kidnap victims in Mexico was released Monday after seven months in captivity.

Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, 69, the silver-tongued, silver-maned, cigar-chomping, wheeling, dealing attorney and political operative known as "El Jefe" Diego, or the Boss Diego, appeared before cameras Monday morning as a free man.

"I want to tell you first, bless God and bless the Virgin," Fernandez said, looking healthy and alert, surrounded by a scrum of reporters in front of his house in Mexico City. "Thank you everyone, everyone here and the ones not here, that I am well, I am strong, and that my life will be the same."

Neither Fernandez nor the government said much about the identity of his abductors, nor how much - if anything - was paid to the people who took him captive.

"About the kidnappers, as a man of faith, I already forgave them," Fernandez said, "and as a citizen, I think that the authorities have an unfinished job."

Fernandez, leader of the ruling party and a close adviser to President Felipe Calderon, was snatched May 14 from his ranch two hours north of the capital by kidnappers, who left few clues, except a spatter of blood and a pair of scissors.

Weeks later, the kidnappers released several photographs of a blindfolded, shirtless, skinny Fernandez clutching a dated copy of the investigative weekly magazine Proceso, which closely tracks the drug war and organized crime.

Immediately after his kidnapping, federal investigators and the military swept onto the scene, but were quickly and quietly withdrawn when the family signaled that their presence endangered El Jefe.

As a sign of the impunity and lawlessness that grips wide swaths of Mexico, the police and military essentially abandoned the case to the family. Even Monday, the spokesman for the Attorney General's office spent most of the day saying he knew nothing about the release.

Instead, several Mexican television journalists played prominent roles in announcing it. The editorial director of the Milenio news organization said there were suspicions that a weak, barely functioning old guerilla group known as the Popular Revolutionary Army was responsible, though many experts in security and kidnapping suspect that a professional kidnapping crew supported by police and criminal organizations was likely the culprit.

Alberto Islas, a security expert in Mexico City, said the kidnapping bore the low-risk and high-impact mark of the guerrilla group, and that friends and family of El Jefe paid $5,000 to $1 million toward his ransom.

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