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A Mexican abduction: Cop apathy, few answers

Manuel Ramirez carries a tattered briefcase with wrinkled court documents and photos of his daughter, now missing for four long years. He no longer wants revenge. He just wants to know what happened.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Manuel Ramirez carries a tattered briefcase with wrinkled court documents and photos of his daughter, now missing for four long years. He no longer wants revenge. He just wants to know what happened.

His wife, Adela Alvarado, spends her days praying. She no longer uses mascara because she is frequently on the verge of tears. She once worked as a clown at children's parties. Now, she wears her orange wig and baggy harlequin costume to draw attention in the streets when handing out fliers with her daughter's picture.

To uncover the truth, they have gone to three different police agencies, battling apathy and the suspected complicity of some officers. And still they search, despite being driven from their home by death threats.

Their daughter, Monica Alejandrina Ramirez, is among thousands of Mexicans who have simply disappeared as kidnappings multiply.

Once, mostly millionaires were targeted. But like Monica, the daughter of a government doctor, more and more victims are middle- and working class. Since citizens fear police and most crimes go unsolved, kidnappings have become an increasingly sure bet. Even the poorest people are snatched off the streets now, for ransoms as low as a few hundred dollars.

"We try to live as normally as possible but do we forget? Or suddenly say, 'Oh I don't feel as bad,' or the pain is not as suffocating? No. No. No. No," said Adela Alvarado, her eyes welling as she clutched her prayer books to her chest. "It's not like clothes that you can take on and off."

About 70 abductions are reported monthly, but the government acknowledges that many more are never logged because Mexicans believe police may be incompetent or involved in the crime themselves. The nonprofit Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies estimates actual kidnappings are closer to 500 a month, which would make Mexico a world leader.

Most kidnap victims survive, but a growing number simply vanish, private investigator Max Morales said. He has worked on hundreds of kidnappings over the last 20 years, and says the crimes are increasingly going awry as petty thugs take up what was once the province of organized gangs.

The federal government could not provide nationwide figures on missing people, but the Mexico City Attorney General's office alone has posted more than 4,000 pictures of people reported missing in the capital in the past year who have not been found.

'Do you have the money'
The Ramirezes' daughter disappeared after leaving home on Dec. 14, 2004, to turn in a university assignment. She was 19.

Scouring hospitals and posting fliers, her family feared their beloved "Ale" had been killed in an accident or robbery. They doubted anyone would kidnap the daughter of a government doctor with a $3,000 monthly salary.

Then Ramirez got the text message from his daughter's cell phone: "If you ever want to see Ale again, pay us 250,000 pesos," some $25,000 at the time.

Meanwhile, Ramirez had gone to the local state police office, thinking they might help.

"I was desperate. My daughter had not shown up, and they were refusing to take my statement. They sat drinking coffee, bureaucracy, I don't know," Ramirez said.

Ramirez says he never got a straight answer about the investigation. Only years later did he learn that the son of an officer from the same station was involved in her disappearance.

So Ramirez turned to the feds, hoping they would be more professional. Officers spent several weeks at their house, waiting for the kidnappers to call. And Ramirez got two more text messages — the last one read, "Do you have the money, or do you want her back in pieces?"

He left several voice messages saying he was ready to negotiate and begging them not to hurt Monica.

Nobody ever called back — Ramirez now wonders if they knew police were standing by.

Desperate for answers
Ramirez eventually turned up the first lead on his own. He went to the phone company and got records showing someone was still calling from his daughter's phone to acquaintances of Jesus Contreras, one of Monica's university friends, who had denied seeing her the day she disappeared.

Ramirez brought this information to a face-to-face meeting with Noe Ramirez, no relation, who then led the federal police's anti-kidnapping unit. If he ever acted on it, the family was never told.

"We poured out our grief, our anguish," Manuel Ramirez said. "But in the end, he brushed us off."

Monica's fate
Later promoted to Mexico's drug czar, Noe Ramirez was fired in July and charged on Sunday with accepting $450,000 to leak details of police operations to Sinaloa drug cartel members.

"We went to the federal police thinking that it was the most professional, least corrupt institution in our country," Manuel Ramirez said. "Now we see that it was the opposite."

President Felipe Calderon has pledged to clean up the police, but he expressed dismay last year, when half of the officers nationwide failed new security and background checks designed to root out corruption and inefficiency. The government also is trying to improve abduction investigations, including creating a cell phone registry to help trace phones used for ransom demands.

In the end, neither state nor federal police helped the Ramirez family. Neither agency responded to requests from The Associated Press for comment.

Ramirez didn't get results until he took the phone logs to the Mexico City police, who arrested Contreras.

Contreras confessed to sending the ransom demands and was sentenced to 21 years in prison for kidnapping, according to court documents. But he denied abducting Monica, testifying that he sent the text messages because Monica had told him her parents mistreated her, and he was angry at them.

He also admitted that he met Monica at a subway station the day she disappeared. But he claimed she was running away and got into a car after giving him her cell phone.

His conviction brought Monica's family no closer to learning her fate.

A family's anguish
The next break came a year later, again without police help. A neighbor who worked in the prison, Rene Bravo, told Ramirez that Contreras told him he had plotted the kidnapping with another young man who lived down the street from them. That man, Marlon Gaona, was the son of an officer at the very police station where Ramirez had first reported her missing.

"I had gone straight to the wolves' den where the kidnappers were," Ramirez said.

Bravo, the neighbor, never got to tell police his story. Two months after he spoke to Ramirez, he was shot dead in the neighborhood convenience store he ran with his wife.

Mexico City police arrested Marlon Gaona, who was sentenced to 21 years in prison for Monica's kidnapping last year. Bravo's daughter testified she saw him run out of the store and speed off in a car moments after her father was shot.

Marlon Gaona denied everything. Court documents indicate he was convicted largely based on the third-person accounts of the prison conversation. The trial shed no more details on Monica's fate.

"This is our great anguish. I no longer want revenge. Maybe a few years ago I did, but not anymore," Ramirez said. "If they would just tell us where Monica is, we would drop everything."