Mexico’s Drug War Leads to Kidnappings, Vigilante Violence

The past year has seen a decline in murders in Mexico's brutal drug war, but a rise in kidnappings and the growth of self-defense vigilante militias

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Enrique Castro / AFP / Getty Images

Members of the Federal Police arrive Morelia city, Michoacan state, Mexico on Jan. 13, 2014.

The dermatologist was closing her consultancy in the suburbs of this swampy oil city in Tabasco when the kidnappers came for her. Forcing her at gunpoint to lie on the floor of a car, they drove her to a warehouse, and held her in an industrial fridge for five days. Finally, family members paid a ransom of 300,000 pesos or about $23,000 for her release. While not badly injured, she said the experience left psychological scars. “Now little things like a man shouting can make me terrified,” said the doctor, who asked her name not be published. “I used to be very sociable but now I want to stay indoors all the time, to hide away.”

The abduction took place during a record year for kidnappings in Mexico. There were 1,583 kidnappings reported to Mexican police in the first 11 months of 2013, more than the whole of 2012, and a quadrupling of the number since 2007. Many other abductions go unreported with victims scared of repercussions if they go to the police. As kidnappings have increased, they have become a problem for the middle class as well as the elite. Back in the 1990s, notorious kidnappers such Daniel “The Ear Lopper” Arizmendi used to focus on multi-millionaires for seven digit ransoms. But many of today’s victims are professionals and small businessmen who pay five figures. Doctors have particularly suffered, with their consultancies making them visible targets.

This record number of kidnappings leaves a stain on what has been touted as a generally successful first year for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took power in December 2012. The president oversaw structural reforms, including a historic change of the constitution that will allow foreign investment in Mexico’s oil sector. U.S. President Barack Obama made a high profile visit, in which he defined Mexico as a rising country with a booming middle class. And the total number of homicides went down by 15 percent. While this still left more than 18,000 murders, it was the biggest drop since drug cartel violence exploded under previous President Felipe Calderon.

However, the kidnapping problem has far reaching implications. Two states with high levels of abductions – Michoacan and Guerrero – have seen the rise of vigilante militias taking justice into their own hands. This week, the government sent thousands of soldiers and federal police to Michoacan as the vigilantes clashed with criminal gunmen. Other states with rising kidnapping numbers include Tamaulipas, Veracruz and Tabasco around the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico, the region that Pena Nieto hopes foreign investment will gush into following the energy reform.

Tabasco state attorney general Fernando Valenzuela says that oil workers are among the victims, as they are identified as people with money to pay for a ransom. However, he says that they are almost always locals rather than foreigners working on international contracts. “The kidnappers study victims for some time. It is often friends or even family members who give information about the victim to the criminals,” says Valenzuela, in an interview in the state capital Villahermosa. Security companies also advise that kidnappers here seldom target Americans and Europeans for ransoms because they fear it could attract special attention and the victims are overwhelmingly Mexicans.

The number of kidnappings had already been rising before Pena Nieto took power. Since 2008, there was an increase in abductions as cartels such as the feared Zetas diversified from smuggling drugs to a wide portfolio of criminal activities, including human trafficking, kidnapping and extortion. In response, Mexican security forces targeted the Zetas as the public enemy No. 1, killing or arresting its leaders in 2012 and 2013. The weakening of the Zetas, who were responsible for some of the worst massacres in Mexico’s recent history, helped reduce the murder rate.

However, now many killers who worked for the Zetas and other cartels have become independent gangs of kidnappers trying to turn a quick buck, police say. “There are local gangs that have been left without the cartel bosses to pay them but they still have the guns and are looking for an income,” Valenzuela said. Another problem is that as the government has cleaned out police forces, many officers fired on corruption charges have turned to kidnapping. Former police officers were found among dozens of gangs of arrested kidnappers last year.

Pena Nieto has talked little about crime as he has tried to shift the agenda on Mexico from the drug war to the economy. But in December, he conceded that his administration needs to do more to fight the repugnant problem of abductions. “There are sensitive subjects, that we cannot avoid,” Pena Nieto told a gathering of governors and cabinet ministers. “I am referring to kidnapping.” Pena Nieto said a new anti-kidnapping strategy will be announced this month.

Crime analysts and lobbyists are divided over exactly how kidnapping should be tackled. A group called “Halt to Kidnapping” has called for an anti-kidnapping tsar to be named to spearhead the fight at a federal level. Some politicians have called for the death penalty against those who abduct victims for ransom. (Mexico currently has no capital punishment).

Security analyst Alejandro Hope of the Mexican Competitiveness Institute argues the solution lies in bolstering anti-kidnapping units at a state level. Kidnappers should be relatively easy to catch as they have to expose themselves to collect money from the victims, Hope says, so investment in these units should garner results quickly. “Kidnappers are successful when you have bad or corrupt police,” Hope said. “But when you have a semi-competent police force on the other side, kidnapping is a very risky business proposition.”

Many weary residents in cities with high kidnapping rates want to see results imminently. Hector Baez, a shop owner in Villahermosa warns that if the the security situation does not improve, more residents could take up arms to defend to their families as they have in Michoacan and Guerrero. “Kidnapping is a crime that destroys people, that destroys communities,” Baez said. “There is only so much people will take before they explode.”