BY DAVID AGREN
Pedro Fletes, a Mexico City teacher and father of six, was pulled from his 1994 Ford Escort by five kidnappers as he passed through the Colonia Roma on a winter morning seven years ago.
His abductors brought him to a "safe house," blindfolded him and kept him confined to a closet for nearly two months. A chain was attached to his leg every night.
Feletes subsisted on a diet of tea and pastries, but was also extended a surprising number of courtesies, including packs of Raleigh cigarettes, his preferred brand.
"If I had been an addict, they would have found me drugs," Fletes said, explaining that his captors treated him like "merchandise" that required care and attention. "The most important thing for them was taking care of me."
Yet in the high-stakes crime of kidnapping, the same captors who brought him his favorite cigarettes might just as easily have cut off an appendage, or even killed him, had the deal for his ransom gone wrong.
Instead, his ordeal ended with him being dumped - penniless and wearing the same clothes he had on when he was grabbed 59 days earlier - at an unfamiliar street corner in a working-class neighborhood near the airport. His family had paid the ransom, the sum of which he declined to disclose, except to say that it was a mere fraction of the millions of dollars demanded by kidnappers involved in high-profile abductions.
Fletes' kidnappers nabbed him for purely economic reasons - even though his salary from his job at a private high school pays him only a middle-class salary. But his abduction came during the early years of a trend in Mexico's lucrative kidnapping industry that has seen the middle and working classes become targets as well as the rich.
"In the '90s and early 2000s, a lot of these kidnappings were done by professionals, groups that were very sophisticated," said Ana María Salazar, a Mexico City political analyst and security expert. "They would plan ahead: who they would kidnap and how much money they were going to get.
"Now people are basically getting kidnapped if they have a nice car or they're wearing a watch, or for some reason there's a perception that they have cash available," she said.
Security experts and the leaders of public security advocacy groups say that the problem for the middle and working classes has only become worse since Fletes was apprehended in 2001. Kidnapping is now so widespread that even impoverished rural villages are feeling its impact.
"There are kidnappings for just 5,000 pesos," said Joaquín Quintana, leader of the anti-crime civic group Convivencia sin Violencia, of the situation in rural areas.
"There are kidnappings where they take a family's child . and ask for a cow and two pigs."
Kidnappings are up 9.1 percent this year in Mexico, averaging 65 per month nationwide, according to the Attorney General's Office. Citizens' groups, however, say that most crimes go unreported, and the real kidnapping rate is likely more than 500 per month.
It's a crime that affects people of all socioeconomic groups. Yet the trend of middle- and working-class kidnappings has been given scant attention by the national media, which this month has focused heavily on the plights of two wealthy families, whose children fell into the hands of kidnapping gangs.
Fernando Martí, whose father Alejandro Martí founded a sporting goods retail empire, was found dead in the truck of an abandoned car July 31. His parents had reportedly paid a $5 million ransom, but it failed to save their 14-year-old son.
The mother of Silvia Vargas made an emotional plea for her daughter's return last week along with offering a reward and posting a billboard to flush out information on the kidnapped 19-year-old, whose father previously ran the National Sports Commission.
The plights of both teenagers made the front-page headlines.
"What happens is that when it's someone from the upper class, and it's a well-known person, it appears in the press," Quintana said.
In the Martí case, the extensive press coverage fomented immense public outrage. A massive march against kidnapping is now planned for Saturday evening in downtown Mexico City.
The coverage also prompted political action - and public displays of support from the country's most prominent politicians. President Felipe Calderón attended the funeral Mass for the 14-year-old kidnapping victim. The president, all 31 governors and the mayor of Mexico City also convened a security summit last week, where the leaders agreed to a 74-point action plan after receiving a public tongue-lashing from Alejandro Martí.
In an apparent reference to the Martí case, Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora acknowledged that "perhaps it takes emblematic events to make us realize that the government is far from living up to its obligations."
But some have suggested that class interests are what drive the government's and public's concern for kidnapping. Back in 2004, then-Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a self-styled champion of the poor and working classes, branded the backers of an anti-kidnapping protest as "spoiled rich kids."
`AN INCREDIBLE BUSINESS'
Security experts say the kidnapping industry began taking off in the mid-1990s, a time when the peso collapsed and authoritarian one-party rule came to an end on the national and Mexico City levels. Asked to explain kidnappings of working-class people, experts cite reasons ranging from lax law enforcement and deteriorating economic conditions to efforts by the rich to make themselves more difficult to apprehend by purchasing bulletproof vehicles and hiring private security.
Perhaps most important of all, the kidnapping of the middle and lower classes, especially in volume, can be a highly lucrative activity.
"There are gangs that do a lot of small-time kidnapping, because these types of kidnappings are a good business," Quintana said.
"There are no complaints filed, nobody goes after anybody. It's an incredible business."
A flood of new entrants changed the industry by carrying out both express kidnappings, in which the victims are forced to simply empty their bank accounts, and virtual kidnappings that trick victims via the telephone into thinking that their loved ones have been apprehended.
Traditional kidnappings are also becoming less sophisticated as victims are increasingly being mutilated and killed, according to Quintana.
"What we're seeing now, unlike before, is that there are no longer any ethics," he said.
"Before, if they were professionals, they would kidnap [the victim] and treat them like merchandise - take care of them, feed them well, return them in good condition. What's happening now is that you pay for the rescue and [the victim] is murdered."
Fletes, who now runs a support organization for the families of kidnapping victims, expressed gratitude that his kidnappers were of the professional variety.
But the reason he was ever targeted in the first place still mystifies him.
"I'm not a rich man," he said.