Mexico City has suspended its anti-kidnapping chief over a rescue attempt fraught with catastrophic errors in which police killed two of their own FBI-trained commanders and a captor shot the kidnapped woman.
The case is the latest humiliation for Mexican police confronting one of the world's highest kidnapping rates and a boom in drug gang violence.
The anti-kidnapping chief, Juan Maya Aviles, has been suspended pending an investigation into the bungled rescue attempt nearly two months ago, Mexico City Attorney General Miguel Angel Mancera said Thursday.
He said two other officers have been detained for questioning over allegations they ignored a tip from the victim's driver that she would be kidnapped. The driver is suspected of initially participating in the plot to kidnap 50-year-old Yolanda Ceballos only to later back out.
The police "were experienced but the operation ultimately failed with tragic consequences," Mancera told Mexican broadcaster Televisa. "Of course, the intention, as in all of these operations, is to liberate the victim."
A rapid-response police team arrived at a house in the middle of the night on July 3 hoping to free Ceballos.
The kidnappers opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles. When police fired back, two commanders — including the chief of the city's elite rapid response force — were shot from behind by their own officers.
Meanwhile, one of the kidnappers inside the home fatally shot Ceballos before killing himself. Seven other kidnappers were captured.
The fiasco called into question intense efforts to root out corruption and better equip and train security forces that are confronting ruthless drug cartels in a battle that has killed more than 11,000 people since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006.
A stream of families have come forward in recent years to complain of police indifference — and even complicity — in the abduction of their loved ones. Despite repeated government promises to crack down, high-profile kidnappings have surged.
The possibility that officers ignored warnings from the driver renewed suspicions of Mexican police involvement in kidnappings.
"If it is confirmed that the police knew she would be kidnapped, it would be proof of what we have been saying: that police are behind kidnappings here," said Isabel Miranda de Wallace, who has been an outspoken anti-crime activist since the 2005 kidnapping of her 36-year-old son.
Wallace embarrassed police who neglected her son's case when she found the kidnappers on her own. But her son remains missing.
Hundreds of police officers have been arrested or fired in anti-corruption stings under Calderon.
Last year, police in the capital arrested a former city police officer and an active federal agent in the kidnapping and killing of the 14-year-old son of a sporting goods magnate, a case that inspired huge marches against crime across the country.
The arrest of two more suspects in that case last month only raised more questions about police effectiveness: Federal investigators say one of the suspects confessed to killing the boy, but did not know the men arrested the previous year by Mexico City police. Authorities say they are trying to sort out contradicting claims by investigators.
The Mexican government says there have been about 97 kidnappings reported each month this year — a jump from about 70 a month last year — but acknowledges that abductions go unreported because of fear that police themselves may be involved.
The nonprofit Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies estimates the real rate is closer to 500 a month, which would make Mexico a world leader in kidnappings.
Mancera said the police who led the July 3 rescue attempt were experienced but did not expect to run into a kidnapper who was willing to kill himself rather than be caught. Mexican police, including the two killed in the botched operation, often receive training from the FBI and other foreign forces.
Police trying to rescue kidnap victims usually have little time to plan their operations and often confront unknown factors, said Joseph A. Pollini, a former New York Police Department cold-case investigator now teaching at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
"The bottom line is — not to criticize them; I'm sure they did the best they can — but they have to train a lot better than they do," said Pollini, who worked on more than 500 kidnapping cases for the New York police and says he never lost a victim during a rescue operation.
"There's always a potential for a problem, but you don't put other people in your area in a crossfire situation," he said. "Every case is a different scenario, and something that can go wrong will go wrong at the worst possible time. That's why training is key."