As kidnappings for ransom surge in Mexico, victims' families and employers turn to private U.S. firms instead of law enforcement

Chart tracking kidnappings in Mexico
SOURCE: Mexican government data, compiled by Movimiento Blanco and the Citizens' Council for Public Security and Penal Justice | The Washington Post - February 27, 2011
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 6:41 PM

IN CHULA VISTA, CALIF. As kidnappings soar in Mexico, U.S. companies and well-to-do Mexican families are turning to private American firms to rescue their loved ones and employees from brutal criminal gangs.

The U.S.-based companies that specialize in resolving kidnappings say they now handle far more cases in Mexico than anywhere else in the world. The companies claim near-perfect victim recovery rates, using former FBI and CIA agents as consultants and charging clients thousands of dollars a day for their services.

But because the abductions occur in Mexico, the American firms are not required to report their cases to U.S. law enforcement agencies, even though the companies and families involved are increasingly located in the United States.

As a result, the boom in cross-border extortion rackets is occurring almost entirely in the shadows, as families and businesses opt to hire private firms and the crimes go unreported in both countries.

The abysmally low level of public trust in Mexican police has driven demand for the private American firms. But U.S. federal and local law enforcement officials say the growth in ransom negotiation services diminishes their ability to gather essential data on the criminal networks.

"I think we should be very concerned that families in our communities are being victimized and that U.S. law enforcement has a limited capacity to track how often it's happening," said Capt. Leonard Miranda, who retired last year as a police commander in this border city of 230,000 wedged between San Diego and Tijuana.

In one instance, Miranda said, one of his officers got a 3 a.m. call from a physician at a local hospital, reporting that a man had arrived at the emergency room with two human fingers in a bag. The man identified himself as a kidnapping consultant and said the severed digits had been sent to his client, whose brother was being held for ransom in Tijuana.

The fingers could not be saved for re-attachment, doctors told the consultant, and when police officers asked him for more information, he ceased to cooperate, telling them it was a private matter. Because the crime and the victim were both in Mexico, "there wasn't much we could do with the incident," Miranda said.

"It is a big concern for us," said San Diego FBI supervisor David Bowdich, who oversees 100 agents and officers along California's border with Mexico. "You may have a private company working a ransom negotiation for one victim, but it may be a kidnapping cell that did it, and the cell doesn't just kidnap one person. There may be multiple cases."

"We need to know about that, and everything associated with the crime. I want to know who ordered it, who financed it, what their motivations are, so we can disrupt and dismantle that cell."

Specialized assistance

Private consultants say six to 10 high-end U.S. firms offer kidnapping resolution and ransom negotiation services, often as part of broader "risk management" contracts sought by wealthy individuals and transnational companies.

Some of the firms are highly professional and generally cooperative with U.S. law enforcement, Bowdich and others say. But the companies tend to maneuver as discreetly as possible in Mexico, usually avoiding contact with authorities who may not be trustworthy.

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