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Mexico City reaches boiling point over rising crime

December 15, 1997

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ An elderly businessman was driving home through a ritzy Mexico City neighborhood when kidnappers cut him off, dragged him out of his car and sped away with him in a red Suburban.

Not far away, a girl rode a tricycle on the sidewalk. A bodyguard with an automatic rifle trailed her on foot.

This is the new reality of Mexico City. In a city never known for being safe, residents say they never have seen such violence. Some people say things may be looking up, but many feel that is only because the capital has hit bottom.

An average of 182 violent crimes and 2.7 homicides are reported each day in Mexico City. That compares with 215 violent crimes and 2.1 homicides a day in New York this year. But because so few crimes are reported in Mexico, the actual rate is believed to be much higher.

The kidnapped businessman was blindfolded, taken to a house and chained by the neck to a toilet, naked, for eight days. When his son paid a ransom, he was released _ minus an ear. One of the kidnappers had sliced it off and sent it to his son.

Like many other crime victims, the businessman believed police officers were involved and never reported his abduction.

``There’s no point,″ he said. ``The kidnapper would talk on the phone to my son for 40 minutes at a time. He would say, `It won’t do any good to trace the call, because the police won’t do anything to me.‴

The businessman spoke on condition that he not be further identified. He feared the kidnappers _ or the police _ would retaliate.

Mexico City’s public security office did not respond to requests for an interview about the crime problem.

The crime getting the most attention these days is kidnapping, partly because it targets wealthy and influential people.

Kidnappers have become so brazen that last month, according to Mexican news media, the chief and deputy chief of the city police anti-kidnapping unit were themselves kidnapped.

After years of hiring bodyguards and paying off corrupt cops, many upper-class Mexicans have begun to speak out. On Nov. 29, about 20,000 people marched through the city in silence, wearing white ribbons in honor of crime victims and holding signs reading: ``Enough already!″

Days later, President Ernesto Zedillo pledged to stiffen criminal penalties and increase the crime-fighting budget. Last Tuesday, he sent a bill to Congress proposing to take away some suspects’ rights. One of Mexico’s bar associations asked Zedillo to go even further and declare a state of emergency.

On Wednesday, Mexico’s federal attorney general’s office offered a $615,000 reward for the capture of Daniel and Aurelio Arizmendi Lopez, brothers who are believed to head Mexico City’s biggest kidnapping ring. They are known for cutting off their victims’ ears.

In his inaugural address Dec. 5, Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas pledged to make fighting crime and police corruption a top priority.

``The citizens’ outcry to eradicate crime is more alive than ever,″ Cardenas said. As for the police: ``No misstep will be tolerated. No offense will be protected by impunity.″

Hours earlier, a copy of the speech had been stolen when Cardenas’ top aide was mugged in a taxi.

On Wednesday, the mayor’s newly appointed Judicial Police chief took a leave of absence following news reports linking him to a killing, extortion attempts and drug traffickers in earlier jobs. He denied all of the claims.

For now, most wealthy Mexicans still bypass the police to protect themselves. Rich neighborhoods post security guards on street corners and armed bodyguards trail many businessmen. Many people carry handguns, usually bought on the black market.

Mexico’s five bulletproofing companies are doing a booming business. Last year, the Blindajes Automundo company refitted 50 cars with Kevlar, Spectrashield and bulletproof glass for prices ranging from $30,000 to $70,000. This year, it has already done 120.

``We originally thought we’d only get politicians and high-ranking executives,″ said Abraham Klip, an engineer who started the company three years ago. ``But people who are well-off but not so rich are also concerned about crime.″

The businessman, meanwhile, is doing fine. During his ordeal, his son rushed the ear to a hospital to be frozen, and doctors reimplanted some of the cartilage after the victim’s release. Another operation in January is expected to bring it back to normal.

``I have two bodyguards now, but other than that nothing has changed,″ he said.