WORLD

A cottage industry in abductions

Kidnappers target foreign executives

PAV JORDAN in Mexico City August 26 1996
WORLD

A cottage industry in abductions

Kidnappers target foreign executives

PAV JORDAN in Mexico City August 26 1996

A cottage industry in abductions

WORLD

MEXICO

Kidnappers target foreign executives

Mamoru Konno’s ordeal began just as he was driving his 1995 Cadillac away from a baseball park on the outskirts of the Mexican border city of Tijuana. The visiting Japanese executive, president of Sanyo Video Components based in nearby San Diego, had attended a game played by the company team, then left with two of the team’s cheerleaders. Suddenly, a Jeep Grand Cherokee and a sedan blocked his car’s path. Two armed men pulled Konno and the two women out of the car and pushed them into the Jeep. The cheerleaders were dropped off at the company’s office a few hours later—but not Konno.

His company, a U.S. subsidiary of the major Japanese electronics firm Sanyo Electric Co., revealed that the kidnappers were demanding $2.7 million in ransom—and that Sanyo would pay it.

The drama last week sent a chill through foreign executives across Mexico. For most are only too aware that the kidnapping of businessmen and other wealthy people has become one of the recession-wracked nation’s growth industries. “You can lose your wife or daughter in the morning and get her back shaken, but unharmed, by dinnertime—assuming you pay a healthy ransom,” says Gerardo Becerra Chavez, president of the local business council in Cuernavaca, a leafy refuge for Mexico City’s rich and famous an hour’s drive south of the capital. By his council’s estimate, some 35 members of Cuernavaca’s elite families have been held for ransom this year alone. Across the country, there were an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 kidnappings last year, more than anywhere in Latin America aside from drug-plagued Colombia.

Until Konno’s abduction, the targets had mainly been wealthy Mexicans from the central region in and around the capital. The Japanese executive is typical of the many foreigners who oversee manufacturing operations in the northern export zones along the U.S. border—and who now seem increasingly vulnerable. Numer-

ous multinationals in Mexico City have already taken anti-kidnapping precautions. Security experts have flocked to the capital to offer advice.

Among them is Robin Ingle, president of Toronto-based International Consulting Services, who counsels corporate clients in Europe, North America and throughout Latin America. Seated behind a desk in his downtown Toronto headquarters, Ingle paints a picture of desperate Mexicans

HOW TO AVOID A KIDNAPPING

Advice international security firms give clients

in Mexico and elsewhere:

Make your lifestyle as unpredictable as possible.

• Dress down if possible, so you are not easily identifiable as wealthy.

• Vary your travel routes. If you must drive an expensive car, consider a bulletproof Mercedes or BMW with steel-lined tires.

• Learn evasive driving techniques.“Sometimes the best way to get away is to drive right through a blockade,” says Los Angeles-based consultant Paul Magallanes.

preying on rich foreigners in a bid to feed their starving families. “It’s amateur kidnappers who are forming the basis of this cottage industry,” he says. “Sometimes they demand as little as $1,000.” Another Toronto-based consultant, Alan Bell, agrees. “Poor people go out and pick up a guy who is wearing a nice suit,” says Bell, a former member of Britain’s elite Special Air Services who works as a freelance security adviser for multinationals. “They hold him incommunicado for a few hours, sometimes days, and then contact the family or corporation for a ransom that is more easily paid than disputed.” Indeed, dealing directly with the kidnappers has become a widely followed rule of thumb— including by Sanyo. Although Mexican federal authorities dispatched an anti-kidnapping squad to Tijuana, the company said it would negotiate for Konno’s release without involving the police. For one thing, companies and families generally want to avoid angering the kidnappers. Moreover, local officialdom attracts widespread public cynicism. In late June, the prosecutor in charge of kidnap investigations in Morelos state, where hard-hit Cuernavaca is located, was himself arrested for ties to an abduction ring.

Wealthy Cuernavaca, known since the time of 16th-century Spanish explorer Hernán Cortéz as the “place of eternal spring,” is these days a wary place. Empty storefronts and a deserted city centre testify to “ an exodus of commercial people. “Just being a businessman in this town places you and your family at risk,” says congressional deputy Groco Ramirez, a local lawyer, in his plush, guarded home overlooking the city. “Everybody knows somebody who has been kidnapped.” In March, residents were shocked when four teenage granddaughters of prominent banker Antonio Ortiz Mena were seized on their way to school by six men toting submachine-guns and semi-automatic pistols.

The girls were returned six days later, after the family paid a U.S. dollardenominated secret ransom. In 1994, relatives of top banker Alfredo Harp Helu paid a reported $40 million for his release after 106 days in captivity.

Lately, the kidnappers’ targets have broadened to include many middle-class families in the central region. With the spread of the scourge to the northern belt and its expatriate managers such as Konno, Mexicans and foreigners alike are keeping a close watch over their shoulders.

PAV JORDAN in Mexico City