- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

MEXICO CITY - With a broad grin beneath his black shades, Jesus Solorzano Martinez says he was stupid — although his language isn’t quite that pretty.

Solorzano is a rarity in Latin America — a kidnapper who got caught.

His first and only kidnapping netted duffel bags full of neatly rubber-banded wads of bank notes on the outside and cut-up newspaper on the inside. Within hours, police were at his door.

Now 52 and a 14-year veteran of Mexico City’s Northern Penitentiary, he regrets what he did — or rather how he did it. He says he should have gone for easier targets and asked for less than the $19 million ransom as his younger counterparts do these days.

“You go to a nice neighborhood and pick up practically anyone off the street,” said Solorzano, who is serving a 35-year sentence for kidnapping a textile magnate. “You ask for [$17,000], and they pay without complaining. If you do five of those a week, pretty soon you’re rich.”

Wave of crime

Latin America is in the throes of a kidnapping epidemic — an increasingly brutal and lucrative crime wave that is spreading terror throughout society and sending businesses fleeing to safer parts of the world.

Latin America accounts for 75 percent of the world’s abductions, according to London-based consultants Control Risks Group. The insurance industry estimates more than 7,500 kidnappings a year in Latin America, but analysts say those statistics and government counts aren’t reliable because so few kidnappings are reported — 1 in 10 by some estimates.

“Latin America is the home of kidnapping, and it’s where the great majority of kidnappings take place,” said Rachel Briggs, head of international programs at Demos, a London think tank.

As the wealthy shut themselves off behind elaborate alarm systems, armored cars and bodyguards — or simply flee to Miami — kidnappers are increasingly turning to Latin America’s middle classes, choosing victims with less care and treating them with more brutality.

Criminals see kidnappers win huge ransoms and prosecutors win few convictions, so many car thieves and drug smugglers switch to what they perceive as a less risky and more lucrative business.

As the fear spreads, the public is becoming frantic. Hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets to demand that their governments take action against the crime wave, and the fortunes of several Latin American presidents are tied to their responses.

But the bitter reality, many analysts say, is that there is little anyone can do to halt kidnappings, at least in the short term.

The booming kidnap industry nets hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom each year. And like any business, they say, it will continue to thrive until it is no longer profitable.

Costly peace of mind

The threat of kidnapping long has led Latin America’s upper classes to retreat into fortresses. High walls have risen around homes, and high-tech alarm systems are ubiquitous. Executives shuttle from office to home in armored cars and are guarded by well-dressed bodyguards wearing Secret Service-style earphones at fashionable restaurants.

Such protection doesn’t come cheap. Vagner D’Angelo, head of corporate security in Brazil for the risk-management group Kroll Inc., estimated that for a company vice president, the minimum security costs would run $80,000 the first year.

NBA star Manuel Ginobili said he invested in tight security for his family in July. Police in his native Argentina intercepted telephone calls indicating that kidnappers were targeting his family as he negotiated a multimillion-dollar contract to continue with the San Antonio Spurs.

“There’s always a car outside. Security people are following them and taking care of them,” Mr. Ginobili said. “It’s not easy to go visit your friends and have a guy next to you, but we have to accept the consequences because this is not a joke.”

‘Quicknappings’

One effect of the wealthy’s retreat behind barriers is that kidnappers increasingly are targeting Latin America’s middle classes — and even the poor. In the past few years, the region has seen a blossoming of a new kind of abductions, variously called “quicknappings” or “express kidnappings.”

These are kidnappings without the research. Criminals cruise shopping malls, nightclubs or restaurants, choosing their victims on the spot based on the car they’re driving, the watch they’re wearing or the company they’re keeping. Such kidnappings often are quite brutal.

“Because they don’t know how much money you have or where you have it, they figure they can beat that out of you,” said Frank Holder, president of Kroll’s investigations, intelligence and security group in New York. “They have a high propensity to violence because they haven’t done their homework.”

Often such kidnappings are quick. Victims are forced to withdraw their daily limit from their ATM card, then are sometimes held for another day or two to repeat the process. If the kidnappers catch a whiff of serious money, they can begin more traditional ransom negotiations.

Jorge Terrats, a 37-year-old hairdresser in Mexico City, said his two kidnappers were violent from the moment they burst into his taxi.

“They hit me in the face and pushed me onto the floor with a pistol to my back,” he said. “When I told them I didn’t know the PIN number for my bank card, they hit me some more.”

His kidnappers made off with $80 in cash from his wallet and the daily limit in his bank account. They also took his jacket, his belt, his rings and even his shoes before dumping him three hours later in a scary neighborhood an hour’s drive from home.

“I didn’t leave my apartment for a week, I was so afraid,” he said.

Fighting back

As the list of potential victims expands to include just about anybody, fear is spreading through society. Restaurants, theaters and nightclubs are watching patrons disappear, and young people are becoming virtual prisoners in their own homes.

“The decent people are living in jails, and the criminals are walking the streets,” Juan Carlos Blumberg said from Buenos Aires.

Mr. Blumberg, a textile businessman, has become the voice of Argentina’s outrage after his son, Axel, was abducted in March in an opportunistic kidnapping. Mr. Blumberg negotiated the ransom down to $6,000, but the kidnappers killed Axel after a shootout with police.

At his son’s wake, Mr. Blumberg heard Axel’s friends ask one another, “Who’s next?”

“I told them I would fight so that no other kid would go through what my son did,” he said.

Mr. Blumberg led two marches in April that drew hundreds of thousands of angry Argentines into the streets. In a country of 36 million people, he has collected 4.9 million signatures on a petition for tougher anti-crime measures.

Mexico, too, has seen a wave of middle-class anger erupt into the streets. In late June, hundreds of thousands of people dressed in white marched through Mexico City to protest crime that has spun out of control.

“People are waking up,” said Fernando Schutte, one of the organizers of the march. But in July, after his nephew was kidnapped for the second time, Mr. Schutte said he was giving in.

“I’m sending my family to live in another country,” he said. “I’ve tried to make my children dedicated to their country, and it’s very sad that I have to do this.”

What the citizens’ groups are demanding is nothing less than a cultural revolution.

They want an end to the corruption that pervades most Latin American societies, a remaking of their judicial systems to create U.S.-style jury trials and dramatic new investments in police, courts, education and social programs. They also want harsher penalties.

Small steps

Some governments have begun to respond. In Argentina, because of the overwhelming popular support for Mr. Blumberg’s demands, the government lowered the minimum age for kidnapping convictions from 16 to 14 and removed the possibility of bail for many types of kidnapping charges.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, facing similar demands, has used the military to go after the guerrillas responsible for most kidnappings, with some success. Colombia is the only country in the region where kidnappings are dropping. According to Pais Libre, a victims’ support group, kidnappings fell from 3,706 in 2000 to 2,201 last year.

Police in Sao Paulo, the state where most of Brazil’s kidnappings occur, enlarged their antikidnapping squad and increased training. The government says the number of kidnappings is falling, although security analysts — and many residents — are skeptical.

Two weeks after the Mexico City march, President Vicente Fox pledged an extra $87 million for law enforcement this year and said he would double the 2005 budget for fighting crime. But activists criticize the government for what they call a failure to implement their demands.

Government action could help, but analysts insist that to bring kidnapping under control, it isn’t enough. Societies themselves will need to change.

“What people are doing is banging on pots and pans and hoping that the government will take care of the problem,” Mr. Holder said. “What it would take is less-corrupt police, less-corrupt judiciary, investment in resources and preventive programs and civil society getting more involved.

“For that to occur,” he said, “you’re talking about decades, not years.”

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