MEXICO CITY — After kidnappers in police uniforms set up a fake checkpoint to snatch 14-year-old Fernando Marti off a Mexico City street, his businessman father paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom and waited for his son's safe return.
Instead, the boy and his driver turned up dead, their bodies found in car trunks. Days later, prosecutors alleged that a police detective was a key participant in the kidnapping plot.
The suspicions of police involvement in kidnap-killings have moved a nation where many had grown numb to kidnappings and the drug cartels' beheadings and midday shootouts. Mass street protests are planned in several cities, and some lawmakers are even changing their minds about opposition to capital punishment.
"They should put their eyes out, so they can't commit any more crimes," said Ignacio Noriega, a 26-year-old university student who says he no longer feels safe anywhere. "Prison isn't a solution anymore. They just form their own gangs inside prison and come out stronger."
As the government convened a national security meeting Thursday to deal with the problem, police reported that 150 residents of a community just west of Mexico City savagely beat and threatened to kill two alleged thieves before handing them over to state police.
Cracking down on crime
The administration of President Felipe Calderon is considering tough new anti-crime measures, such as separate, more secure prisons for kidnappers and a national database of the largely unregistered cell phones frequently used by criminal gangs.
Mexico has one of the world's highest kidnapping rates, according to the anti-violence group IKV Pax Christi. Kidnappings are up 9.1 percent this year, averaging 65 per month nationwide, according to the Attorney General's Office, which blames a growing web of drug cartels, cops, former cops and informants who point out potentially lucrative victims.
But most kidnappings go unreported, for fear of the police.
The nonprofit Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies estimates the real kidnapping rate to be more than 500 per month.
Alejandro Cesar Zamudio, a commander of Mexico City detectives, defended the innocence of the officer implicated in the Marti case, saying the allegations were motivated by rivalries within the department. But Mexico City's top cop, Public Safety Secretary Manuel Mondragon, acknowledged that "a spiderweb of corruption has penetrated many parts of our department."
Family members shot, slashed
Rich Mexicans have long resigned themselves to hiring private security teams and negotiators to deal with the threat. But now, even middle-class people are at risk, and kidnappers are increasingly killing their captives, even if a ransom is paid.
Just three days before Marti's decomposed body was found on Aug. 1, a family of six was found dead in their home in western Jalisco state, allegedly targeted by kidnappers aided by corrupt cops.
Four victims, including two children, were shot in the head. A teenage boy's throat was slashed. His mother was asphyxiated with a plastic bag.
One of the family's sons had been kidnapped and released after a ransom was paid, but the gang — allegedly aided by a corrupt cop in the state anti-kidnapping squad — demanded they hand over more cash.
The gang killed the family after they realized the police officer was part of the scheme, prosecutors say.
Fed up residents
Anger also boiled over last week when residents of the central Mexico town of Tlapanala managed to surround and disarm a gang of seven kidnappers posing as police. They held them for 24 hours, pounding the men to bloody pulps.
Mexico abandoned the death penalty long ago and considers life sentences to be cruel and unusual punishment. Only in 2005 did Mexico agree to extradite suspects facing life sentences in the United States. But this week, the small Green Party proposed reinstating capital punishment for police who participate in kidnappings, or for kidnappers who kill their victims.
Calderon has proposed life imprisonment for the worst kidnapping cases, currently punishable by 50 years.
The Attorney General's Office says increasingly diversified organized crime cartels "now operate in drug trafficking, kidnapping and money laundering, among other things, with no central control or any one gang dominating any of the criminal activities.
"That is why kidnapping has grown more competitive, with kidnappers using much more violence against each other and against the victims, in a bid to gain territory, markets or dominance," the report says.
An anti-crime march in 2004 drew more than a quarter-million people and damaged the presidential aspirations of the capital's mayor at the time, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Another such mass march has been called for Aug. 30.
Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino worries that growing anger could lead to more vigilantism and mob justice.
"It is clear that the public is indignant, is angry, and it has a right to be," Mourino said. "If we are not able to reach agreements and channel these demands into clear and concrete steps, then yes, people could start taking other types of action that wouldn't solve the problem or benefit anyone."
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