Bribes allow Mexican kidnapper to defy authorities Zedillo orders capture by any means necessary

May 31, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MEXICO CITY -- Among the scores of kidnappers operating in Mexico, Daniel Arizmendi Lopez has earned a name as the boldest and most brutal, Mexican officials said, and not only by hacking off hostages' ears to pressure desperate relatives into paying million-dollar ransoms.

Arizmendi, officials said, deploys platoons of gunmen to overwhelm wealthy businessmen protected by convoys of bodyguards. He has become notorious for nonchalant savagery, tormenting victims while negotiating by phone with their relatives and showing disregard for potential wiretaps.

The key to Arizmendi's confidence has been a wall of official protection cemented together with bribes to municipal, state and federal police officers and prosecutors, senior Mexican officials said in interviews. He has seemed virtually untouchable while carrying out, they said, at least 18 kidnappings.

Arizmendi's have been among the most spectacular of the kidnappings that have recently terrorized Mexico, once considered among the safest of Latin American countries. The country's elite is so panicked about mounting lawlessness, and about Arizmendi in particular, that several corporate chief executives and bankers complained to President Ernesto Zedillo recently, a senior law enforcement official said.

"The president gave orders for us to seize Arizmendi using whatever means necessary," an official said.

Arizmendi's luck appeared to change on May 21 when a federal organized crime unit and police officers from three states, backed by army troops, raided what they said were seven of his safe houses in Mexico City and Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos state 35 miles to the south. In Cuernavaca, they said, they arrested his wife, son, daughter and daughter-in-law and seized $5 million in bundled cash, which he had apparently collected in recent kidnappings. Arizmendi escaped.

Arizmendi, 40, heads a criminal organization that has included relatives, several longtime lieutenants, and at any one time a dozen or more temporary gunmen hired on contract to carry out specific operations, officials said.

Few kidnappings are even reported to the police in Mexico, and even fewer result in arrests. Arizmendi has shown that they can be lucrative. During the first half of 1997, he collected nearly $4 million in ransoms, officials said, about three times the booty taken in all Mexico City bank robberies during the period.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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