By Leonard Doyle in Washington
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
An American anti-kidnap expert has been abducted by gunmen in northern Mexico, after he gave security seminars to businessmen about how they might avoid that very fate.
Felix Batista, a former US Army major who has helped resolve some 100 kidnap and ransom cases, arrived in Mexico from Miami last week and gave several talks to business owners in Coahuila State before meeting local police officials. On Tuesday, while dining at a restaurant, Mr Batista, 55, took a call on his mobile phone and got up to leave. Armed men took him away. He has not been heard from since.
“We have notified the FBI and Mexican authorities, and they are working on the case,” said Charlie LeBlanc of ASI Global, for whom he sometimes works as a security consultant. “We’re offering our support to the family and hoping for the best.”
Coahuila, which lies next to Texas, has not been among the most violent places in Mexico, but two of the state’s anti-kidnapping chiefs have been abducted in recent years. Mr Batista, who is Cuban-American, was working for his own security consultancy when he was taken. “Part of that [work] could be or may involve negotiations with kidnappers,” Mr LeBlanc said.
Mexico is plagued by kidnap and drug gangs, but until this case, the only American anti-kidnapping consultant to have been seized was in a Hollywood movie. In the 2004 film Man on Fire, Denzel Washington played a US consultant who took on Mexican kidnappers only to be abducted himself.
Across Latin America, kidnapping is a huge business, as is the industry for supplying bodyguards to defend against abductions. Gangs earn hundreds of millions of dollars ransoming members of wealthy families who fall into their clutches. And corruption is so pervasive local police forces and army officers can be persuaded to turn a blind eye to kidnappings and drug trafficking. Many of the hundreds of kidnappings in Mexico are never reported. Insurance companies often hire consultants to quietly deliver bags of cash to free hostages.
Larry Birns a Latin American expert who runs the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, says kidnapping in Mexico is “an industry all by itself”. The bloody turf battles being fought by Mexican drug cartels and a crackdown by 25,000 troops sent to northern Mexico is making kidnapping a more attractive trade for some gangs. They buy high-powered automatic weapons over the border in the US so they can outgun Mexican police.