Kidnapping Negotiator Is Now a Victim in Mexico
By MARC LACEY
Published: December 15, 2008
MEXICO CITY — An American security consultant who has helped negotiate the release of scores of kidnapping victims in Latin America was himself kidnapped last week in northern Mexico after delivering a seminar there on how to avoid that fate, officials said Monday.
The F.B.I. and Mexican law enforcement officials are investigating the abduction, which took place Wednesday evening in Saltillo, an industrial city a three-hour drive from the Texas border.
The consultant, Felix Batista, 55, was giving security seminars for business owners in Coahuila State when he was abducted by a group of armed men.
He arrived Dec. 6 and gave two seminars on Monday and Tuesday, the local news media reported. On Wednesday, he met with police officials, and later in the day, he was in a restaurant when he received a call on his cellphone that prompted him to get up and leave, officials told the local news media. That is when the armed men took him away, officials and local newspapers said.
“I do a lot of security consulting, and the last thing I think of is being a victim in the process,” said Jon M. French, a former State Department official who runs his own security company in Mexico City, Problem Solvers. “Talk about turning the tables.”
Mr. Batista works for ASI Global, a security company based in Houston. It operates a 24-hour hot line that aids clients with, among other things, responding to kidnappings.
“We’re still gathering information on what occurred,” said Charlie LeBlanc, the president of ASI Global’s parent company. He confirmed that Mr. Batista had been kidnapped, but declined to say whether a ransom had been demanded.
Mr. LeBlanc said the company and Mr. Batista’s relatives were working with colleagues and law enforcement officials to gain his release. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Felix and his family at this time,” Mr. LeBlanc said in a statement.
Coahuila has not been among the most violent places in Mexico, where killings and kidnappings have soared. Many of them are associated with drug traffickers moving narcotics to the United States.
But the state, which abuts Texas, has not been immune either. Two of the state’s anti-kidnapping chiefs have been abducted in recent years, according to local news reports. State lawmakers, clearly frustrated with the rising level of impunity, recently sent a bill to Mexico’s Congress asking for a constitutional amendment allowing the death penalty for kidnappers who kill captives.
Mr. Batista, a former United States Army officer credited with helping to free hostages abducted by Colombian rebels, has frequently been quoted by journalists on Mexico’s drug violence. He offered regular seminars to wealthy Mexicans who feared they were abduction targets.
At a private security conference in Tijuana in February, Mr. Batista said kidnappings in northern Mexico were especially delicate because drug traffickers were frequently involved.
“The narco-kidnappers are not looking for chump change,” he was quoted as saying by McClatchy Newspapers in April. “It’s a pretty darn good side business.”
In August, he appeared on NBC News, saying, “The middle class and the middle upper class are suffering the vast majority of the cases.”
In an article published this month by Security Management, a trade journal, Mr. Batista detailed how he had helped negotiate the ransom of a wealthy Mexican entrepreneur. Before he was called in, the family had given $1 million to a group of people who had falsely claimed to be the kidnappers.
Mr. Batista helped persuade the real kidnappers to reduce their ransom demand to $300,000. A daughter of the kidnapped businessman had nothing but praise for Mr. Batista’s efforts.
“Felix even cooked for us sometimes,” she was quoted as saying. “It’s important not to lose hope or get depressed, because you need to keep strong to help.”
Hundreds of Mexicans are kidnapped every year, although the authorities can only guess at the exact figure because most cases are never reported. There is widespread agreement that the problem has worsened recently as drug cartels, facing pressure from the army and the federal police, seek new revenue streams.
In one case that ended tragically last week, the authorities confirmed that remains discovered recently in southern Mexico City were those of Silvia Vargas, a teenager kidnapped in 2007. Her parents, who went public with her disappearance and offered a reward for information leading to her release, held a memorial service on Sunday, asking everyone to wear white.
“We know that Silvia is with God,” the family said in a statement.