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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

For those desperate to buy back relatives or employees, the consultants can provide effective, confidential assistance in Mexico, a country where distrust of law enforcement is widespread and corruption rampant. And some families in the United States turn to private companies because they may also be wary of American law enforcement or the U.S. government, particularly if they have tax problems or immigration status issues.

Colombia was once Latin America's kidnapping capital, where Marxist guerrillas took hostages and held them for months, even years, in recondite jungle camps, using them as political bargaining chips or human shields. But in recent years, as drug cartels in Mexico have branched out into other forms of crime, kidnapping there has become a lucrative cash industry.

According to a recent Mexican congressional report, kidnappings have increased 317 percent in the country since 2005, and some 75 percent of abductions go unreported. The study also estimated that current or former Mexican soldiers or police were involved in 22 percent of the crimes.

Cross-border extortion

The country's lurid violence and growing fears of kidnapping have driven many well-to-do families and business executives to relocate to the U.S. side. But while the move can make them physically safer, they may become more vulnerable to cross-border extortion schemes by gangs eager to snatch employees or family members who remain in Mexico.

Some abductions are the product of meticulous stalking by professionalized kidnapping rings who research their victims' assets to better calculate their ransom demands. Other victims are held hostage and menaced with death for as little as a few hundred dollars.

U.S. authorities and kidnapping experts say the gangs are increasingly torturing and mutilating victims, cutting off ears, noses and other extremities, then making videotapes to send to the victims' families or mailing the detached body parts. New, inexperienced criminals are also getting involved, making negotiations more volatile.

"The amateurs are more dangerous than the more sophisticated groups because they're unpredictable, less disciplined, and they're scared," said Kerry McCown, a consultant with New York-based Altegrity Risk International, which provides global kidnapping and ransom negotiation services.

As a general approach, consultants say they try to talk criminals down from ransom demands that may be excessive or financially impossible for their clients to meet, while taking great care not to anger them and risk further harm to the victims.

If a U.S. citizen is kidnapped in Mexico, or anywhere else, the FBI mobilizes agents to respond once the incident is reported.

For that reason, consultants said, the Mexican gangs tend to prey mostly on Mexicans or other Latin Americans.

Armand Gadoury, an executive with Reston-based Clayton Consultants, a division of the security contracting firm Triple Canopy that claims to have resolved 1,500 kidnapping and extortion cases worldwide, said private firms may have a somewhat different goal than law enforcement agencies.

"Our objective is to get the victim out the quickest and safest we can, and those can be at odds when another objective is catching bad guys or reducing crime. And that can put the safety of the victim in jeopardy," he said.

Gadoury said the company's Mexico caseload doubled in 2010.

Mexican officials said they have tried to improve public trust and encourage victims to step forward, developing special vetted units with help from the FBI and other U.S. agencies. But they also acknowledged that victims may turn to private help.

"It is unfortunately an unavoidable consequence," said Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, "but one that I believe both governments are watching closely and carefully."

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