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Kidnapping thrives in Mexico

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Mexico's abduction problem has spawned a billion-dollar-a-year private security industry, which provides rich families and big businesses with bodyguards, armored cars, prevention training, and kidnap negotiators. Wealthy families have been known to pay as much as $30 million in ransom, though Mr. Farrer and others say the average asking price is around $280,000 and the final payment usually negotiated to about $19,000.

Another new trend is the "virtual kidnap": gangs go for young professionals driving expensive cars, and usually negotiate their ransoms and releases within about 36 hours. "They go for volume and speed to reduce the risk," says Farrer. "Often, they don't even steal the car, which would be easier to trace."

The growing number of kidnappings has yielded new products catering to kidnap fears. Volkswagen has introduced an armored version of its Passat sedan to the Mexican market. Advertisements show a mock abduction attempt foiled by the bullet- and flame-proof car.

Victims of a wave of kidnappings in the 1990s in Cuernavaca, in central Morelos state, say the trauma shredded the fabric of their affluent community.

"I would say about 80 or 90 percent of the 'kidnappable' people here were kidnapped," says student Gerardo Cortina, who was held for 15 days after armed men nabbed him as he was leaving his university one evening. "We all asked ourselves, 'Who's next?' "

Many victims simply packed up with their families and left Mexico. "Anna," who didn't want her real name used, moved with her family from Cuernavaca to Dallas after armed men broke into their home in 1995 and kidnapped her for 30 hours.

She recently returned to Mexico after giving birth to a son. "Now that I am a parent, I can't imagine what my parents went through," she says. Seven years later, "we still call each other every 30 minutes to check everyone is OK."

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