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Kidnappings Multiply In Mexico

Police Involvement Alleged

When they say "express" in Mexico, theyÂ're not talking about a fast train. TheyÂ're referring to "express kidnapping," the random, quick abduction of someone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Express kidnapping is the latest variation on a crime reaching epidemic proportions in Mexico. Since hardly anyone is ever punished, kidnapping has become a major criminal enterprise. The gangs that specialize in it are well organized. And, as 60 Minutes II Correspondent Bob Simon reports, the police are struggling to catch up.

"There was a lot of glass flying, and a lot going on," says Ken Krusensterna, who was kidnapped in Mexico last year. "And there [were] some gun shots. And then all of a sudden somebody tapped me on the chest and said, Â'Look, OK, weÂ're the good guys.Â'"

Krusensterna is only one of about 1,500 people kidnapped last year in Mexico: ThatÂ's four kidnappings on average every single day.

Ken Krusensterna was kidnapped in Mexico last year.
His kidnapping began with a business trip to the Mexican border town of Reynosa for a meeting with a Mexican businesswoman. She set him up for the kidnappers, and they kept him in a "safe house" for 13 days, blindfolded, gagged and tied very tightly to a chair.

"I thought [my] hand was severed, because there was absolutely no feeling in it. And I figured they severed it. And I heard stories about them sending fingers and so forth. So I figured they sent that to my family," says Krusensterna.

What they did send to his family in Dallas was a demand for $350,000. But his family called the FBI, which convinced Mexican authorities to let it help in the case. While the negotiations dragged on, the kidnappers kept Krusensterna under control.

"Every day I tried to think how I could get out of there," he remembers. "But then the thing that came through my mind was, Â'Will this chair go through the door?Â' I donÂ't know."

"I was nude, and I thoughtÂ…if I could get up, and get out onto the street, I figured somebodyÂ's going to pay attention. A guy running down the street with a chair on his back, nude.Â…ThereÂ's got to be something wrong there," he adds.

What was wrong, from the kidnappers' point of view, was that they were using KrusensternaÂ's cellular phone, which the FBI traced directly to their hideout. ThatÂ's when these kidnappers were caught.

But in Mexico, kidnapping is a crime that almost always pays.

For one, most Mexican kidnappings are simple and easy. The kidnappers simply snatch their victims right off the street i short-term abductions. For express kidnappers, the question is not whom theyÂ're going to grab, as much as where theyÂ're going to do it.

Traffic lights are a prime location, which is why drivers in Mexico City often run red lights at night. ThatÂ's a lesson journalist Sergio Sarmiento learned the hard way, as he drove to work one evening.

"I stopped at a red light. I just heard someone knocking on the window of the car, and I turned around, and thereÂ's this guy with a gun," Sarmiento says.

"HeÂ's pointing at me, and he asked me to unlock the doors, so I did. And he got into the car, and someone else got into the back seat with another gun," he adds.

"And they got my ATM card, and then they put me in the trunk of the car, for roughly about 18 hours....It was probably the most traumatic experience in my life. I really thought that they were going to kill me," Sarmiento recalls.

While he was in the trunk, SarmientoÂ's captors used his ATM card, looted his account of $5,000 and subsequently released him.

But now, kidnappers have discovered a way to get their money without going through the muss and fuss of an actual abduction. The kidnappers latest technique is whatÂ's being called the "virtual kidnapping." They spot someone and follow him or her into a restaurant or a movie, for example. They then know theyÂ've got a couple of hours.

They contact his family, claim theyÂ're holding him hostage and demand an immediate, but modest, ransom. So in the space of a couple of hours, the criminals get their money, the man goes home, and everybodyÂ's happy. ItÂ's just like the movies: It's all make-believe.

Even MexicoÂ's middle class is now squarely in kidnappersÂ' sights; Sarmiento says that the affluent now have too much protection.

"ItÂ's become far riskier to kidnap very rich people," he says. "Maybe you get a lot more money from a rich person, but if you kidnap enough middle-class people, you can probably make a fairly decent living."

Some wealthy people are using their money to make kidnapping riskier. TheyÂ're not only hiring their own personal bodyguards, but they can visit a Mexico City factory where Daniel Bell will turn a car into a moving fortress.

"I would recommend probably an SUV," says Bell. "We will have installed 39-millimeter glass. We would have put in a ballistic steel around the perimeter of your vehicle. And we would make sure you do not have any ballistic gap whatsoever."

"That means no matter where a bullet is aimed at your vehicle, itÂ's not going to penetrate," he adds. "Our level six vehicle is chemical-attack resistant."

But security comes at a price: $40,000 to $50,000 above the sticker price of the car. There are many customers, and BellÂ's business has jumped 400 percent in the last three years. Once you have a car, BellÂ's company, Kroll-OÂ'Gara, will teach you how to drive it aggressively.

Lesson one: Good Samaritans make ood victims, says instructor Dale Bulkley. Lesson two: Make a quick exit, no matter what.

Bob Simon gets a lesson in how to avoid kidnappings from instructor Dale Bulkley.
Those who can afford it are willing to spend all this money to avoid falling into the clutches of those like Daniel Arizmendi, an ex-cop who became a kidnapper. Arizmendi was known for cutting off his victim's ears with chicken-wire scissors and sending them to the victimÂ's family.

He explained why to a Mexican television interviewer shortly after his arrest: "I think sending them an ear makes a pretty big impression."

In one case, a cop was snapped by a security camera taking money out of an ATM account that belonged to a kidnap victim who was murdered.

That man was the head of the police anti-kidnap squad in the Mexican state of Morelos - until he was arrested on kidnapping charges. The heads of kidnapping units in two other Mexican states have also been arrested on similar charges.

Several sources close to law enforcement say that police are involved, in some way, in the majority of kidnappings in Mexico. And citizens find it to be true.

"Very often, people are convinced that those who kidnapped them are also working for the police departments. ThatÂ's why they donÂ't lodge complaints," says Sarmiento.

"TheyÂ're always afraid that there might be some kind of a reprisal against them or against their families. TheyÂ're afraid of the criminals. But theyÂ're also afraid of the police,"
he says.

"It has happened in every family, in my own," says Mexico CityÂ's new police chief, Alejandro Gertz. "[We solved it], partly privately, and we put those people in front of the judge. Now they are out."

Gertz, a college professor with no law-enforcement background, was appointed in a desperate move to clean up the police force.

"The last people who were in charge of this police - they werenÂ't in control; they didnÂ't know even how many people were here," says Gertz. "We have to give the feeling that they, the police, [are] on [the publicÂ's] side. ThatÂ's the job."

"You cannot see the future in this country with insecurity. You cannot see democracy. You cannot see economical growth with insecurity," he says.

"We have come to a point where the crime wave in Mexico is threatening national security. ItÂ's just as simple as that," Sarmiento adds.