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Page last updated at 10:43 GMT, Friday, 3 July 2009 11:43 UK

Taking on Mexico's kidnap gangs

By Robin Lustig
BBC's The World Tonight, Mexico City

Claudia Wallace
Claudia Wallace - her brother Hugo was kidnapped and murdered

It is not easy getting to meet Claudia Wallace. There are the guards at her front gate, then the security cameras and the alarm systems.

She, her husband and her children, live behind high concrete walls, as if in a fortress.

They have good reason. Four years ago, Claudia's 35-year-old brother, Hugo, was kidnapped and murdered.

Since then, she and her mother have waged a relentless, high-profile campaign against the kidnap gangs.

They have been threatened and shot at. No wonder they are careful.

Held captive

Now meet Mineko - she decided it would be prudent if I did not give her second name, or publish her photograph. She too has reason to be careful.

Mineko was kidnapped last year, as she was shutting up the shop where she works with her mother. She was held captive for three weeks before her family managed to scrape together enough money for a ransom.

Adrian Franco
The drugs cartels are at war with each other
Adrian Franco,
Mexican Attorney-General's Office

And Anna, a round-faced 28-year-old, who was "kidnapped" for 20 minutes in a taxi, as the driver's accomplices searched her for anything of value.

Her ordeal may not have lasted long, but it terrified her - and she says she will never be the same person she was before.

If a drugs gang is short of cash for a quick transaction, what easier way is there to raise the necessary funds than by snatching someone off the street and demanding whatever it can get from the family?

It happened at least 1,000 times in Mexico last year - probably much more often, because many victims never report the crime.

There were also more than 6,000 murders in Mexico last year. The total number since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 is now more than 12,000 - and the murder rate is still increasing.

"The drugs cartels are at war with each other," Adrian Franco, of the Mexican Attorney-General's Office, told me.

"The reason why violence is increasing is that the gangs are fighting against each other, and at the same time they are reacting to the actions of the state in repressing them. It shows that our strategy is working."

The government has drafted in 45,000 soldiers to take over from the police in the fight against organised crime.

Unlike the often corrupt, under-paid, and under-resourced police, the army is respected here - but it is being asked to do a job that some critics say it is neither trained nor equipped to carry out.

Robin Lustig
Robin Lustig tries on some bullet-proof fashion

So how can Mexicans protect themselves? Well, if they have enough money, they can buy bullet-proof fashion clothing from Colombian-born Miguel Caballero, who runs a flourishing business catering to the well-heeled fearful.

At his boutique in the fashionable Polanco district of the city, I tried on one of his sleek black leather jackets.

It looked perfectly ordinary, although it was a good deal heavier than an ordinary leather jacket would be - and with a $5,000 price tag, it was certainly a good deal more expensive.

On the other hand, it comes with a guarantee that it can stop a speeding bullet and save your life.

I asked Miguel if I would get my money back if it did not live up to his claims.

He laughed.

Robin Lustig reports from Mexico on 2 and 3 July for The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4



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