Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement both say there was no special treatment. Reyes said he has never even met the woman, Erika Possert, whom he described as the aunt of his sister-in-law's son's wife.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, however, questioned what role Reyes may have played in ICE's decision to get involved in the case.
"While Congressman Reyes undoubtedly was overwhelmed by concern for his relative, officials with more objectivity should have been considering the greater political and policy issues raised by ICE's intercession," said the group's executive director, Melanie Sloan.
Reyes is a six-term congressman and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which does not have jurisdictional oversight of ICE. He is also the former sector chief of the Border Patrol in McAllen and El Paso, Texas.
"I did not exert any influence on anything or anyone," Reyes said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press. "I know from my law enforcement experience that I have no business directing any investigation. Like a doctor operating on oneself, I am not going to interfere with someone who might be related. Everything that was done by my office was done properly and the way we've done on other cases."
Reyes said his sister-in-law called his Texas office to report the kidnapping, and one of his staffers called an ICE official in El Paso. Reyes said he wasn't informed until seven hours later.
Possert and another victim were released after an approximately $30,000 ransom was paid by one of Possert's relatives in Mexico. ICE had no role in the ransom negotiations, agency spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said. It is U.S. government policy to deny ransom or other demands from hostage-takers.
Nantel said the agency - which has officers in Mexico and regularly works with local law enforcement - did nothing out of the ordinary. ICE provided secure office space in the U.S. and Mexico to help Mexican authorities communicate with people who had information, including some U.S. citizens. The victim was brought to the United States after her release for security reasons at the request of Mexican law enforcement, Nantel said. Nantel said ICE gets hundreds of these tips each year and reviews all of them.
As a bloody drug cartel war continues throughout Mexico, kidnappings for ransom having become increasingly common. Still, most cases never reach the attention of U.S. officials let alone an influential congressman.
An estimated 90 percent of victims don't report kidnappings in Mexico, experts say. While some abductions are related to the drug war, most are for ransom. Victims' relatives usually try to resolve abductions on their own because they have little faith in police.
U.S. agents cannot operate freely in Mexico, but the embassies and consulates have officials from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and ICE who are authorized to work with their Mexican counterparts, especially on investigations involving U.S. citizens. Any time a U.S. citizen is harmed, the consulate or embassy gets involved and talks to police.
This situation, however, did not involve a U.S. citizen.
Reyes' staff was kept informed as a courtesy, said an FBI official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because an investigation is continuing. The FBI provided whatever information it had on the kidnapping to ICE and advised Reyes at least once. The official said Reyes was mostly in contact with ICE.
In the last six months, 15 to 20 cases in Mexico involving extortion, kidnapping and attempted murder were reported to Reyes' office, his Texas spokesman, Peter Brock, told AP. All were referred to law enforcement. Four more were reported Thursday and one Friday, he said. Brock did not say how many of these involved U.S. citizens.
But Jaime Hervella, founder of the International Association of Relatives and Friends of Disappeared Persons, said Reyes has appeared unwilling in the past to do much to help families of 196 missing people his group works with.
"He ignored us," said Hervella, whose group represents 34 U.S. citizens. "The human rights issue is exactly the same."
Brock disputes Hervella's claim. He said Reyes has repeatedly met with individuals and groups of missing people. When appropriate, the information has been passed to law enforcement, he said.
James R. Jones, former ambassador to Mexico under President Clinton, said he didn't believe ICE acted inappropriately. Anyone could ask for U.S. assistance for their foreign relatives, he said, though he conceded most average citizens couldn't get through to anyone.
"Even a distant relative of an official or an important person that influences our society, if that person has a concern about and it could influence society, I would think it would be proper to intervene," Jones said.