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Mexico ignores kidnappings; families have little recourse

25 Mar

For the women of the Cazares family who were kidnapped with their families for ransom — and who are still searching for five missing relatives — the official response to their horrific ordeal has been even more excruciating than the crime itself. They still see criminals they recognize living large in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, as untouchable as kings.

By DAMIEN CAVE

The New York Times

Mexico ignores kidnapping!
Mexico ignores kidnapping!

MATAMOROS, Mexico — They have spotted their stolen vehicles at stoplights, driven by the same gunmen who used them to take their entire family captive last July. They have reported the brazen abduction to every branch of Mexican law enforcement, only to be ignored or directed someplace else.

 

For the women of the Cazares family who were kidnapped with their families for ransom — and who are still searching for five missing relatives — the official response to their horrific ordeal has been even more excruciating than the crime itself. Even now, they say, after months of trying to goad Mexican authorities into action, they still see criminals they recognize living large here in this border city, as untouchable as kings.

“We’re completely impotent,” said Zynthia Cazares, 30, a U.S. citizen who was among those abducted and whose husband, brother and father are still missing. “No one will help us.”

Six years into a mostly military assault on drug cartels, impunity across much of Mexico has worsened, and justice is harder to find. Criminals in Mexico are less likely to be punished now than even just a few years ago, say current and former government officials and experts who have studied Mexico’s ailing judiciary, because the authorities have been overwhelmed by increases in violent crime while corruption, fear and incompetence have continued to keep the justice system weak.

Many areas now veer toward lawlessness: In 14 of Mexico’s 31 states, the chance of a crime leading to trial and sentencing was less than 1 percent in 2010, according to government figures analyzed by a Mexican research institute known as Cidac. And since then, experts say, attempts at reform have stalled as crime and impunity have become cozy partners.

“Crime goes up, diminishing the likelihood of punishment, which causes crime to rise again,” said Alejandro Hope, a former senior intelligence officer for Mexico. “And so we go.”

Kidnappings, in particular, are fueled by this dynamic. Reported abductions have jumped by more than 300 percent since 2005 — to levels on par with Mexico’s kidnapping wave in the late 1990s — in part, experts say, because criminal gangs have become better organized and freer to commit crimes without being punished.

Some Mexican officials counter that the kidnappings illustrate the desperation criminal groups find themselves in after years of battling the government. These officials argue the training programs and increased coordination among the authorities have strengthened the system. But researchers say kidnappings, which require teams of captors, safe houses and a degree of territorial control, flourish when the state is particularly feeble. Studies also show that kidnappings destroy a city’s sense of security and its economy even more than murders.

The Cazares case

The Cazares case is a telling example: Eighteen family members were taken from three homes in Matamoros over a few hours on the morning of July 9. Their houses and offices are now shuttered, stripped nearly bare by thieves.

Their calamity has been pieced together through interviews with a half-dozen relatives, personal notes and correspondence with Mexican and U.S. authorities.

Even with some details and names left out for security reasons, the Cazares case shows how border towns such as Matamoros — across from Brownsville, Texas, and with a population of 490,000 — run according to rules defined less by government than by gangs that exhibit both sophistication and the heedlessness born of committing crimes in a void, when the chances of getting caught can barely be measured.

The case also shows how various levels of the Mexican government pay lip service to helping crime victims, without doing much else.

The kidnapping

It was not yet 5 a.m. when the gunmen — at least eight of them, many with the high voices of youth — suddenly appeared, first in the living room then the bedrooms, wearing fatigues and black masks.

They moved quickly as if they had done this before, rounding up everyone and blindfolding all but a 9-year-old boy and a girl who turned 11 that day. They asked the family patriarch to open the safe, then the gunmen pushed everyone — including Rodolfo Cazares, 36, a symphony conductor visiting from Germany, and his French wife, Ludivine — into the family vehicles.

The women ended up in the back of a Chevy Suburban, covered with a sheet. “We were afraid, but we were always hopeful that nothing bad would happen,” Ludivine Cazares said.

By 7 a.m., the kidnappers had reached the second Cazares home. “Open the door,” they demanded, guns in hand, as they stood a half block from a private guard booth for the neighborhood. “We have your brother.”

They collected four more relatives. There was a slight snag in their plan — a son had escaped, sprinting to the third Cazares home a few blocks away. But in his haste he must have left the door open because minutes later, the kidnappers barged in there, too.

The Cazares men — three middle-aged brothers, one of their sons and a son-in-law — were kept together. The women and three children, along with an 84-year-old grandfather, found themselves stuck in other vehicles for most of the first day. Their captors drove them around the city for hours.

It was clear that they were not worried about getting caught.

In their conversations over portable radios, the men talked mainly about avoiding their rivals, the Zetas, a ruthless crime syndicate. “We’re from the Gulf Cartel,” the men said.

The police rarely came up, and no one intervened — not neighbors who saw the abduction, nor strangers who saw the Cazares women, in their pajamas and shoeless, being moved into a different car on a busy street around midday.

Around midnight, three days after the Cazares women were taken, the kidnappers dropped them off near the loading dock of a nearby Wal-Mart.

They were free. But, what about their husbands?

Ransom demands

The ransom demands began two days later, with telephone calls to a Cazares brother who lives in Texas.

Calls for ransom often mean that the captives will be released, and the Cazares family made four payments, sending a trusted employee to deliver a total of $100,000 to Matamoros, first to a grocery store parking lot and then behind a fast-food restaurant.

The family spent days and nights sitting around the kitchen table in Texas waiting for the telephone to ring. On three occasions, the Cazareses were allowed to speak with one, then two of the five men still being held. During the final round of calls, on July 27, the kidnappers said they needed only one more payment. The family sent the cash across the border, waiting to see the white van the kidnappers had said would arrive with their loved ones after the money was received. It never came.

Devastated, the family tried calling the kidnappers’ telephone. But it was out of service, that day and forever.

Pleading for help

Several weeks later, the Cazareses went to the authorities. They first had to overcome their fears, because more than a fifth of all kidnappings in Mexico involve police officers or soldiers, according to a 2011 Mexican congressional report, which also explains why kidnapping statistics are undercounted.

Since they started pushing for an investigation, the Cazares women have not stopped. In addition to extensive testimony given to local, state and federal authorities, they have written letters to Mexico’s attorney general, human-rights officials and the Department of Foreign Affairs, as well as President Felipe Calderón. They have also written to U.S. President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI.

The response has been defined by minimal effort and cold dismissal.

The local police initially promised to investigate but a month later sent the family a form letter saying the case was out of their jurisdiction. (The department did not respond to emails and telephone calls seeking comment; nor did the mayor of Matamoros.)

In September, state investigators with a 50-member anti-kidnapping squad in Tamaulipas took lengthy statements from family members. But in an interview this month, one of the investigators said his team had not questioned any potential suspects or witnesses, nor had investigators visited relevant locations.

Meanwhile, an official with the Mexican Attorney General’s Office in Tamaulipas insisted the kidnapping was a state case.

The Cazareses now say that they are back to square one: Lower-level officials at the Interior Ministry have asked that they file official paperwork, which means additional delay

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