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Kidnappings Growing in Argentina

November 8, 2002

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ Bathed in TV lights, the father of a popular Argentine TV star Pablo Echarri stood on a balcony and held back tears as a crowd welcomed him home from a weeklong kidnapping ordeal. ``It was the worst and best night of my life, all mixed together,″ he declared.

Antonio Echarri had just been freed by elite police teams that raided the suburban house where he was being held, even after the family had paid a ransom equivalent to $56,000.

Echarri’s abduction was just one of three high-profile kidnappings in recent days _ evidence that abduction has become a growth industry as this nation of 37 million slips ever deeper into economic disarray. There have been nearly 30 such abductions this year, up from five in 2001.

On Monday a 68-year-old retired businessman, Jose Bascoy, was freed unharmed even though media reports suggested his family failed to raise the $500,000 ransom during the eight days he was held.

The family of Federico Ariente, the 23-year-old son of a wealthy businessman, had to hand over a reported $100,000 last Wednesday for his release. Ariente was held for 17 days after kidnappers ran his car off a highway.

At that rate, Argentina may not be far behind Mexico, where kidnappings occur every 24 hours in its capital. One difference, however, is that in Mexico many kidnappings are a matter of grabbing a victim and making a relative withdraw the ransom money from an ATM. That doesn’t work in Argentina, where the economic crisis has led to partial limits being placed on withdrawals from machines.

Hard-put to raise cash, some families drop off cars or other valuables for the kidnappers.

The good news, experts say, is that the police actually cope well once a kidnapping has occurred, and in 95 percent of cases the perpetrators are caught.

The problem, they say, is that judiciary and law enforcement in Argentina are too weak to deal with problems triggered by a shattered economy.

``The rise in crime rates is less economic and more a function of political and institutional breakdown in Argentina,″ said Joseph S. Tulchin, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

But many Argentines also point to economic and social upheaval as part of the reason for soaring kidnapping and armed robbery rates.

The currency has lost 72 percent of its value over four years and unemployment stands at 22 percent. Per capita annual income has plummeted from $8,100 to $2,400, almost destroying the middle class.

``The problem is completely logical,″ said Martha Lobos, a 58-year-old dentist eating at the posh Richmond cafe in the city’s financial district. ``People are having a hard time, there are no jobs and no possibility for work.″

Even police are drawn in. A retired police sergeant has been implicated in Echarri’s abduction, along with five kidnap suspects, authorities say.

A new elite force has been created to deal with hostage-taking and kidnapping in Buenos Aires province, and checkpoints ring Buenos Aires, the capital.

Juan Jose Alvarez, Argentina’s justice minister, is proposing legislation to impose sentences of up to 25 years for those convicted of kidnapping for ransom.

Update hourly