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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 April, 2004, 17:30 GMT 18:30 UK
Mexico: A kidnapped society
By Charlotte Davis
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Federal Investigation (AFI) officers practice a kidnap release operation
Officers are trained to cope with hostage situations
Whilst the world watches in horror at the rash of kidnapping in Iraq, it should consider looking to Mexico for expertise in kidnap and negotiation.

Every Mexican family knows they might have to negotiate the liberation of a loved one.

It has become a way of life, though nobody knows how many kidnappings there are here every year.

The official figures say there were only 214 kidnaps between 2001 and 2003, but security groups say it is closer to 1,200 in 2003 alone.

Being native to Mexico City, Dr Pablo Carstens became a kidnap negotiator more through necessity than choice.

He left university as a fully trained veterinary surgeon. But an unconventional career path led from guard dog training into Mexico's massive security business.

After showing promise in the negotiation of freeing his own cousin he received formal training from security giant Control Risks and now runs his own security company.

He helps liberate about 30 victims a year.

Crisis management

Pablo assists families through their crisis in a calm, quiet manner, chain-smoking all the way.

He took me to his latest negotiation where 32-year-old Mauricio was negotiating the liberation of his father, Pasquale.

The life of the father can depend on this son's performance
Dr Pablo Carstens
Kidnap negotiator

The family was certainly not as rich as I was expecting. But wealthy Mexicans are increasingly nervy, difficult targets. So kidnappers are now hunting lower down the food chain.

The "crisis centre" was Mauricio's sister's modest apartment. Cans of cola and packets of cigarettes were stacked in the corner to sustain them between telephone calls.

Poignantly, cheerful family photos on display were a stark contrast to the family sitting tensely in the room.

To help Mauricio, Pablo had written prompts on sheets of paper covering the wall, such as: 'We have not got that money', and 'that account has been closed for months'.

Prompts usually work well but Pablo confided: "Mauricio is not very bright, he is a terrible negotiator. I must teach him how to speak, how to breathe, so he sounds scared, because the life of the father can depend on this son's performance."

Police involvement?

When the call came the air was suddenly electric. Pablo frantically wrote prompts on the wall as the tinny voice of the kidnapper rang out, shouting obscenities at the dumbstruck Mauricio.

Pablo writes prompts on the wall
When the calls came in, Pablo scribbled his prompts
"This is your last chance," he said, "If you do not give us the money he is dead."

Mauricio opened and closed his mouth a few times like a goldfish and stammered: "No, No!"

It was not just that Mauricio was not a natural communicator that was causing trouble for Pablo.

He had discovered that one of Pasquale's daughters, who was pushing for immediate payment of the ransom, was in love with a policeman.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents
Mexico's kidnap crisis was broadcast on Thursday, 15 April, 2004 at 1100 BST

'It is a possibility that this guy is involved [in the kidnap], he is not a good guy,' he said.

Legal representatives of victims claim at least 70% of kidnaps involve police or ex-police participation.

I met with a senior anti-kidnapping agent who admitted the problem. "You know about the calls, the tactics, even how to tap phones, to check up on families, the kind of thing the police can do,' he said.

I am still cautious with those I have worked with a long time
Dr Pablo Carstens

'The problem is that some people just want easy money and know how to do it."

When I asked if the rate of kidnap is going down, he said: "It is going up, it is getting worse, the government no longer gives out kidnapping figures to the media because they do not want people paranoid on the street. They do not want to start a national crisis about kidnapping."

The relationship between the police and private negotiators is tense. Over time, Pablo has developed a trusting working relationship with a few policemen, but he told me:

'You have to be very careful, no names, addresses, money amounts are written down or given in police files, and I am still cautious with those I have worked with a long time,' he said.

'Rotten society'

After four more days of complex haggling and threats, Pasquale was released. It was Mauricio who opened the door to his father at 0300. He had been beaten and had two broken ribs.

Pasquale came in to see Pablo for a debrief and we heard the story. He had been abducted by eight men and taken to a house out of the city, where he had been guarded and fed by two of the kidnappers, one of which was a woman.

Everyone thinks it is just because the police are corrupt, but that is because the police are part of a rotten society
Dr Pablo Carstens
At least one other victim was being held in another room.

Pablo made efforts to get Pasquale to report the kidnap to the police but Pasquale refused. When the issue was pushed further Pasquale replied:

"It is important that the police do not give me trouble. The boss of this group, he was a policeman and he is not any old policeman... If there is some way that they will overlook me, my family, that is for the best is it not?"

I asked Pablo what his personal thoughts were on the kidnap problem, and he told me: "Maybe the authorities are saying that in a couple of years there will be not one single case. In reality, it is getting higher.

"Everyone thinks it is just because the police are corrupt, but that is because the police are part of a rotten society.

"I do not think it is just a police matter. Kidnap here is a social problem."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 15 April, 2004 at 1100 BST, and was repeated on Monday, 19 April, 2004 at 2030 BST.

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