August 8, 2008

Mexican president proposes life sentence for police involved in kidnappings

Friday, August 8, 2008
By LAURENCE ILIFF / The Dallas Morning News

MEXICO CITY – It was a normal school day for 14-year-old Fernando Martí, son of a sporting goods mogul, but it was not the normal route taken by his driver and his bodyguard to the British American School. Then, a makeshift roadblock on a busy thoroughfare, men dressed in black with guns. It was a setup, and Fernando was the target.

Wearing vests with the initials of Mexico's Federal Bureau of Investigation, the abductors took the two men and the boy to a house, tortured and killed the driver, pulling out all his teeth, and left the strangled bodyguard for dead.

Only this week did prosecutors reveal that the bodyguard survived the early June attack and provided details that pointed to high-level police involvement.

On Thursday, President Felipe Calderón sent a proposal to Congress that would for the first time impose a life sentence on those convicted of kidnapping when the perpetrators are police or the victim is a minor. He invoked the name of Fernando Martí, whose decomposed body was found in the trunk of a car last week.

An opinion poll published Thursday in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma shows that a majority of people in Mexico's biggest cities favor the death penalty for kidnappers – a surprising turnaround in a nation that has used every legal and diplomatic tool possible to keep states like Texas from executing Mexican citizens on death row.

Mr. Calderón called the crime against young Fernando "a cowardly act" and promised a crackdown against kidnappers.

But government critics are calling it a crime of the state – allegedly planned and executed by city and federal police, including those assigned to the international airport, where thousands of Americans arrive every day.

"The reason business people are so mad is because they have armored cars, bodyguards trained to resist a commando attack from five, six, seven people," said Samuel González, a security consultant and former federal prosecutor. "But when it's the government, using weapons paid for by the national security system, government vehicles, when it's Mexico City police putting up roadblocks ... how do they protect themselves against that?"

Mexican authorities, including local police and federal agents, have been implicated along with organized crime groups in the record number of drug cartel deaths, in a resurgence of sophisticated kidnapping gangs, and in human smuggling rings and protection rackets.

Those criminal groups include the Zetas, based along the Texas-Mexico border.

"If the Zetas cannot be stopped from drug trafficking, they are not going to be stopped from kidnapping," said Mr. González, who ran the federal organized-crime bureau and dismantled top kidnapping rings a decade ago.

"You have business people who are willing to abandon entire regions of the country because of crime – Juárez, Sinaloa, the northern part of the country," he said.

Mr. González said he personally knows of seven high-level kidnappings in the last 45 days.

The abduction of Fernando Martí harked back to the rash of kidnappings of the ultrarich in the mid-1990s. His father, Alejandro Martí, owns a chain of sporting goods stores and expensive gyms.

After the abduction, the Martí family went to the police but also hired a private negotiator, according to media reports. The kidnappers, the "Flower Gang," are known for killing the drivers and bodyguards of the abducted and putting flowers in their mouths.

But Mr. González said the Flower Gang had returned past victims alive after negotiating a ransom.

Initially, the kidnappers asked for $3 million for the return of Fernando. According to a Mexico City police file leaked to the media, the Martí family negotiator made a counteroffer of 2 million pesos – about $200,000 – a number that angered the man speaking for the abductors. In mid-June, the Martís paid 5 million pesos and waited for Fernando to show up. He didn't.

The family then took out full-page newspaper ads, pleading with the kidnappers to return their boy.

When Fernando's body was found last Friday, he had probably been dead for a month, police said. He was identified using dental records.

In the ensuing days, dozens of police were arrested as suspects, including high-ranking commanders.

Meanwhile, hundreds turned out to say goodbye to the smiling youth whom most knew only in photos, where he is invariably wearing a baseball cap and sports gear.

Someone who knew him well, British American School director Patricia Brictson, said in a letter published in Reforma: "Fernando, your light will be with us today and forever. Your school, teachers and schoolmates will love you forever. Thank you for motivating us to be better."

News assistant Javier García contributed to this report.

Abductions close to home
Many kidnappings take place near the U.S.-Mexico border, including these recent cases:

•In July, gunmen abducted five South Koreans in the border city of Reynosa, near McAllen, Texas. The abductors falsely identified themselves as police, according to news reports. The five were held more than a week, then freed unharmed.

•Also in July, gunmen abducted Gerardo Valdes, chief of kidnapping and organized crime investigations for the state of Coahuila, which borders Texas. Police were told in a phone call that he had been kidnapped by the Juárez drug cartel. He remains missing.

•In June, a distant relative of U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, was kidnapped in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso. She was released after her family in Mexico paid a ransom, according to news reports.

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