Wave of abductions in Guatemala Kidnappings: Gang members, drug traffickers and former civil war combatants have turned to abductions as a lucrative crime of choice in Guatemala.

Sun Journal

November 10, 1997|By Michael Riley | Michael Riley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala -- At 7: 05 on a Monday morning, a GMC Suburban -- its windows tinted almost black -- pulls up to the American School in a rich suburb of this crowded capital city. Out jumps a 14-year-old on her way to classes. Before the car door closes, a big man in a dark suit steps out, a bulge underneath the left side of his jacket and a somber expression on his face.

Behind follows another Suburban, and then another and another. Most have armor-plated doors and bullet-proof windows. Within half an hour they've disgorged not only a horde of teen-agers but also a virtual regiment of these armed guardians.

It's a morning ritual in a country that has two distinctions among its neighbors: one of the highest concentrations of wealth in Latin America and what's fast becoming one of the world's highest rates of kidnapping.

The explosive level of abductions -- out of cars in the capital's business district or from isolated coastal roads -- is sending shivers through Guatemala as it attempts to rebuild itself after three decades of civil war that ended in December.

The tell-tale signs are everywhere. The Land Rovers and Suburbans that move along the highways linking the capital and the coast travel in inseparable pairs. "The one in front is for the VIP," says the manager of an international security firm in the city, "the one in back is for the bodyguards."

Guardians toting 9 mm pistols linger conspicuously outside Guatemala City's nightclubs. Homes in luxurious suburbs are equipped with panic buttons linking them to private security police. Even in middle- and lower-class neighborhoods, there is a sense that it's unsafe to walk the streets unaccompanied or after dark. Kidnapping in Guatemala has reached the extraordinary level of a common crime.

"We're seeing ransoms for as little as a thousand quetzales," the equivalent of $165, says Oscar Recinos, the head of Neighborhood Guardians, an advocacy group for victims.

Recinos says that 682 kidnappings were reported to his group by victims' families through July, and most victims, by far, were not among the country's rich.

That number is hotly disputed by the government, which does not want the city to become known as one of the world's kidnapping capitals. "In one case, a young woman might go to a different [part of Guatemala] because she was pregnant, another might take off with her boyfriend. There are a thousand situations like this and a lot fewer kidnappings" than are claimed, according to Salvador Gandara Gaitan, vice minister of government and the official directly in charge of the country's public security.

But public faith tends to be more in Recinos' numbers than the government's disclaimers. "It's part of the anarchy that we're living through right now," says Karen Fischer, director of the Alliance Against Impunity. Nine members of her own family have been kidnapped.

Kidnappers took one of her cousins when he got out of an armor-plated car that stalled because of a remote-controlled device attached to the engine. An 8-year-old niece was taken from a school bus after kidnappers threatened the other children on board to get her to identify herself.

The explosive rise in crime in general, and kidnapping in particular, jeopardizes efforts by the government of President Alvaro Arzu to modernize Guatemala's economy and attract global investment. "Kidnapping can be an especially frightening thing to foreign investors," says Pablo Rodas Martini, an economist with the Association of Investigation and Social Studies, a Guatemala City think-tank.

Ironically, a major cause of the wave of civilian violence may be the end of the civil war. Tens of thousands of combatants have been demobilized -- armed, trained and suddenly unemployed.

"During the war," says Vice Minister Gandara, "kidnappings were used as a way to get money to buy arms. We're not accusing the [former guerrillas] or the army as institutions, but there are people from both sides that weren't necessarily in agreement with the peace and are now operating as armed bands committing these crimes."

Post-war El Salvador and Nicaragua, too, have experienced increases in crime as arms and manpower flow from military structures into civil society.

Another possible explanation for kidnapping becoming the crime of choice in Guatemala is, paradoxically, the relative success of a recent crackdown on narcotics trafficking. Some drug gangs may have shifted into kidnapping as a safer -- and often just as lucrative -- alternative.

"There was an infrastructure. They had cars, they had guns," says Arturo Quiroga, who advises executives and families on security in Guatemala City.

The proliferation of gangs has created a competition for potential targets. That, combined with increasingly effective efforts by the rich to protect themselves, has forced gangs to look to the middle and lower classes for victims. Rather than big ransoms, kidnappers are increasingly making their money like discounters -- low mark-up, high volume.

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