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Mexicans Seek a Fugitive - And Find Themselves?

Massive manhunt leads to hard look at values

Brutal reputed kidnapper Daniel Arizmendi Lopez was a handsome police officer when he began his life of crime in the mid-1980s. As a onetime cop gone bad - very bad - he symbolizes the tares among the wheat that Mexicans see in their society today: corruption, violence, vindictiveness, greed, and failing solidarity.

President Ernesto Zedillo insists rising criminality will be checked by the rule of law and a strengthened justice system. But the Arizmendi case demonstrates how far there is to go, as authorities continue one of the biggest manhunts in Mexican history.

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"People hear the tapes of Daniel Arizmendi coldly describing how he treated his victims, and there is shock at the lack of any humanity," says Alberto Arnaut, a political scientist at Colegio de Mexico, a prominent Mexico City graduate-studies school. "Then they find out about the powerful network this man developed with a professionalism surpassing that of the law enforcement trying to catch him, and it adds to a generalized sense of insecurity that is already strong."

The Arizmendi case also highlights Mexicans' changing perception of money. "This is a society where money is important, but where it has never been an obsession," says Professor Arnaut. "Now we have this criminal operation whose objective was to amass money, more than could ever be spent - and that's something shocking to Mexicans."

The Arizmendi ring's estimated total was more than $10 million in cash and jewels, more than three-dozen houses, and other properties.

Yet, it's still Arizmendi's network of protective connections that appears to trouble average Mexicans most about the man widely known as the "earcutter" for his mutilation of victims.

"Any day you can go into a market and see a policeman taking bribes for 'protection,' " says Ral Garca Cruz, a Mexico City accountant.

"It seems like the way things have always been, but then you remember that that is just how Arizmendi started."

Police estimate that at least five other well-organized kidnapping gangs operate around the country. This year's official count was 139 kidnappings as of June 1, up more than 10 percent over last year's. But several times as many probably took place, according to experts on the subject. Many victimized people don't inform the police; they assume police may be involved.

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"In a society that is all the time more focused on material possession, the individual is defining himself less by what he is and more by what he has," said Carlos Ternero Daz, director general of Mexico City's prisons and rehabilitation centers, in a recent national TV interview. Arizmendi, he said, "seems" a success both to himself and others "because of what he has: money, properties, power connections, impunity."

Those words find a certain echo from Armando Corte, a Mexico City psychologist. "For average people, there's a horrified rejection of this man. But at the same time I see something bordering on admiration," he says. "Here's somebody who started with nothing and amassed millions, properties, connections."

The problem for Mexico, Mr. Corte says, is that - with the country's continuing economic crisis, growing rich-poor gap, and what he calls "a strong sense of economic injustice" - more people all the time believe most doors for getting ahead are closed to them. "Either you're a professional athlete, a singer - or a criminal."

With a minimum wage at about $3 a day, he adds, simply working hard does not offer even modest success.

The Arizmendi kidnapping gang is believed to have operated in Mexico City and surrounding states over the last eight years. It appears the gang sometimes killed its victims even after a ransom had been paid. Its alleged protectors within various law-enforcement agencies received as much as 40 percent of the take.

That is why many Mexicans say it will be difficult to capture a fugitive Arizmendi, though most of his family has been put behind bars: his wife and son after a police operation in late May, and his brother Aurelio, the gang's co-leader, June 30.

"He's still being protected," says accountant Garca Cruz, "because too many police and other officials risk too much if this man is taken in alive."

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