A wave of kidnappings in Mexico has halved the number of tourists visiting the country’s most famous popular destination and left foreigners working in the country terrified for their families.
Once a hotspot for American tourists, Tijuana, just south of the US border, has seen visitor levels plunge amid a recent wave of violent crime that includes a worrying escalation in kidnappings, particularly of American residents.
The former tourist trap has seen visitor levels fall by 50 per cent over the past year, Jack Doron, president of the Tijuana Merchants Association, told the San Diego Union Tribune. It is just one of a host of Mexican destinations tourists are increasingly wary of visiting given the level of violence related to organised crime.
In January, US officials warned travellers to Mexico to exercise extra caution given a recent spike in kidnappings of American residents. According to the FBI, the number of abductions involving US citizens and legal residents along the California part of the border alone more than doubled during 2007 and, since November, has been at the rate of around six per month.
Sophisticated and violent Mexican kidnapping gangs are thought to behind the abductions, which typically target victims from families wealthy enough to pay hefty ransoms.
“It is a business to them,” said Darrell Foxworth, an FBI special agent in San Diego division. “They are involved in a number of criminal activities and one is kidnapping because it is profitable to them so they operate as a business because it generates income.”
Victims were generally people with “family ties or business ties” to Mexico who made frequent trips from America, he said. “And the hostage takers, the abductors, view these people to have some amount of wealth in order to pay a ransom. It appears they are not taken randomly, there is some pre-surveillance or pre-analysis beforehand.”
About 90 per cent of the cases involve a middle-class family with no criminal ties living in San Diego and neighbouring communities.
The kidnappers are armed and often dressed in police or US Immigration and Customs Enforcement uniforms or pose as traffic officers to pull over victims’ cars. Hostages are held “for a period of time to exact a ransom” and frequently subjected to “acts of brutality, torture, beatings,” Mr Foxworth said.
“They are also starved – we had one report where a person was held for two weeks during which time they were handcuffed with their hands behind them the entire time, chained to the floor and fed only three tortillas and water. It’s just unconscionable what’s happened to some of these people.”
As well as the increasing number of abductions, the FBI was also worried about the fact some of the kidnappings were taking place on American soil, Mr Foxworth added. “Groups will come across the border, abduct people and take them back down to Mexico,” he said.
The FBI will not disclose the amounts of the ransoms demanded, and sometimes paid. But in one recent case, kidnappers demanded ransoms of about £150,000 and £25,000 dollars for two women estate agents abducted while they were showing a property in southern Tijuana. Family members negotiated a payment of £13,500 and dropped the money off at a location in Tijuana, but the victims were not freed.
They were found after police traced the vehicle used to collect the cash and the driver led them to a house where the women were held.
In January, the US state department said 27 Americans had been abducted in Mexico’s northern border region over the previous six months and two of these hostages had been killed. It warned that “US citizens should be aware of the risk posed by the deteriorating security situation” along the border with Mexico.
Tony Garza, the US ambassador to Mexico, has written to senior Mexican officials voicing his concern that growing drug-related violence and kidnappings in northern Mexico would have a chilling effect on cross-border trade and tourism. He drew attention to the “increased numbers of murdered and kidnapped Americans in recent months”.
In 2007, according to the FBI, at least 26 San Diego County residents were kidnapped and held for ransom in Tijuana and the Baja California communities of Rosarito Beach or Ensenada.
Recently authorities at San Diego State University warned students to “consider the recent violence” before traveling south for this month’s spring break.
On Monday, a seven-hour gun battle ensued as soldiers and federal police targeted members of a kidnapping ring at a house in an upmarket Tijuana neighborhood. One suspect was killed and a kidnapping victim freed, the son of a prominent businessman, who was being held at the property.
The region’s increasing violence comes despite increased efforts by US and Mexican authorities to crack down on organised crime, which includes the country’s massive, and bloody, drugs trade.