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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

By Nick Miroff
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.

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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