Mexico, sometimes maligned during political campaigns, nonetheless remains vital to the economic interests of many nations. For the many companies doing business there, security remains a crucial concern.
And that security landscape is becoming more complicated, due in large part to the dynamics of the drug trade, experts say. The homicide rate in Mexico increased by 15 percent during the first six months of 2016 compared with the previous year, with approximately 9,400 people murdered across the country in that time period, according to a recent study, iJET's Quarterly Report: Organized Crime and Drug-Related Violence in Mexico.
Underlying this rise is a resurgence of activity by drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs), with dozens of DTOs fighting pitched battles for territory.
“They are engaged in turf wars on multiple fronts,” said Justin Kersey, intelligence manager for iJet’s Americas team, at a recent briefing on Mexico’s security situation.
Some DTOs are expanding into new territories in Mexico, so that a majority of Mexican states are now seeing organized drug-related crime. Increased demand for methamphetamine and heroin in the United States is another driver for DTO activity. Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel has been particularly successful in penetrating the U.S. drug market, with a significant presence in places like Chicago, Philadelphia, southern California, the Ohio Valley, and portions of West Virginia and Kentucky, Kersey said.
With their resurgence, DTOs have now become more integrated with legitimate political and business activity in Mexico, iJet Americas expert Sean Wolinsky said at the briefing. Along with this integration comes rising levels of impunity for DTO criminals; roughly 90 percent of DTO crime goes unreported to police, Wolinsky added.
While most DTO-related crimes involve gang members rather than expatriates or unaffiliated business people, “that doesn’t mean that larger multinational corporations are completely immune,” Wolinsky said. Those doing business in Mexico for an extended period of time face some degree of elevated risk, especially regarding four major forms of crime: kidnapping, assault, robbery, and extortion.
“Anyone operating in Mexico is at risk of becoming collateral damage in these crimes,” Wolinsky said. Mining companies have been recently beset by kidnappings, he added, citing the example of several Goldcorp employees who were abducted and later found dead in Mexico’s Guerrero state last year.
Two more specialized types of abductions—virtual kidnapping and express kidnapping—have become more common in Mexico recently, experts say. In a virtual kidnapping, a kidnapper will use social media to select a “victim” online by looking for someone with an extended virtual network. The criminal will contact the victim’s friends and family and, claiming to hold the victim hostage, threaten to harm him or her if no ransom is provided.
In an express kidnapping, the victim is held for only a short time, anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days. Often, the abductors will force the victim to make as many ATM withdrawals as possible during that short period, then let the victim go.
Whatever form kidnappings take, they are crimes that can affect victims in ways that employers should be aware of, says Rachel Briggs, executive director of Hostage US, a nonprofit organization that supports hostages and their families during and after kidnappings.
Briggs has personal experience in these matters; in 1996, her uncle was kidnapped while he was working as an engineer in Colombia, and “for seven-and-a-half months, she and her family were thrown into an alien world of fear, isolation and helplessness as others negotiated for his release,” according to her organization’s website.
When working on a case, Briggs’ group assigns a team member to be the contact person for the victim’s family members, who are often thrust into the daunting situation of trying to deal with authorities, journalists looking for news, and a host of other parties.
“You’re suddenly dealing with governments and private security companies, and they speak a different language,” she says.
Later, if the victim is released and returns to work, his or her employer should be aware of various issues that may arise. Take, for example, an employee working in Mexico who is kidnapped and held in captivity in a windowless room for many months. Returning to work in a small windowless office or cubicle may be problematic for the victim, and could potentially trigger traumatic memories. Even commuting in closed-off spaces, such as a crowded underground train, could be difficult for that individual, Briggs says.
Similarly, a victim who was held for an extended period of time in solitary confinement may have trouble concentrating in a busy office environment or one with an open floor plan, she adds.
In addition, there is a common misperception that the shorter the time a victim is held in captivity, the less traumatic impact there will be on him or her.
“In my experience, the reverse tends to be true,” Briggs says. That’s because a hostage who was held for a long period has time to mentally come to terms with what is happening, she explains. In small but important ways, the victim can take control of some of his or her actions, such as deciding to walk around the room every hour, or exercise twice a day, or even whether to eat. This helps them adjust.
In contrast, a 48-hour “express” kidnapping may seem like a violently disruptive experience that was chaotically terrifying from beginning to end. “The prolonged trauma from that can be much greater,” she says.
Overall, kidnappings do seem to be on the rise, and not only in Mexico, Briggs adds. For example, more terrorists are using short-term hostage situations as a tactic: the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, the Bataclan Theater attack in Paris, and the Raddison Hotel attack in Bamako, Mali, all featured short-term hostage taking.
As tragic as those events were, the less sorrowful news is that the majority of kidnappings end with the victim being released. “Thankfully, most hostages do come back alive,” Briggs says.