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A Hostage Crisis Hits Latin America

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In life, Beverly Sandoval was the family merrymaker, the oldest daughter who played practical jokes and decorated the Christmas tree.

In death, she has become the symbol of a nation’s pain and rage.

Her burial on a misty day in November resembled a state funeral. Guatemalans filled the long road to a cemetery outside the capital, tossing flowers onto her hearse. Mourners waved banners reading, “Basta ya!” (“Enough already”).

“What we want is for there to be no more Beverlys,” said her stepfather, Gerbert Sole, fighting back tears. The 20-year-old forestry-engineering student died in an epidemic that has stricken thousands of middle-class families like hers throughout Latin America.

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She was kidnapped.

In Guatemala, kidnapping has spread so rapidly that citizens’ groups only started keeping statistics on the crime in 1997.

“What I can assure you is that since 1996, [kidnapping] has increased monstrously and become more and more damaging,” said Michelle de Leal of Anguished Mothers, one of three anti-kidnapping organizations here.

Colombia has recorded more than 1,000 kidnappings every year since 1993. The number of abductions rose by nearly two-thirds from 1993 to 1997, according to Pais Libre, an anti-kidnapping organization.

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The toll is also growing in neighboring countries as kidnappers expand operations by exporting their skills. Mexico, Brazil and Ecuador are suffering rashes of abductions, authorities say.

Why the alarming rise? Kidnapping is a simple crime to commit and a difficult one to investigate, making it an easy, quick way to get money.

The region’s armed conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s left a legacy of former soldiers and guerrillas who know how to use guns and abduct people but have few other skills. Now they are using their wartime training to organize kidnapping rings. Other criminals are learning from their example.

Further, critics blame the police and courts for ineptitude and corruption that enable kidnappers to get away with their crime. The low risk of getting caught makes it worthwhile to abduct for ransoms of $50,000 or less; thus, the pool of potential victims has broadened considerably.

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Kidnapping is no longer just a crime against the wealthy.

Today’s victims are people like Beverly, a leather wholesaler’s stepdaughter who was driving through the mountains after a Sunday afternoon in the colonial town of Antigua. These victims also include a teenager waiting for a school bus in Guatemala City; a septuagenarian sleeping in his concrete-block ranch house in northern El Salvador; and a retired teacher bird-watching a few hours’ drive from the Colombian capital, Bogota.

“It has gotten to the extreme that all kinds of people are being kidnapped, but the worst of it is that the victims are children, young people and the elderly,” said Juan Jeronimo Castillo, a victims’ rights lawyer in San Salvador. “And don’t think that these are rich people. These are working people.”

Psychiatrists and law enforcement officials warn that so many abductions create societies that are at once fearful and callous.

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“We are trying to sensitize people with television and publicity campaigns so that we don’t just become accustomed to this,” said Ruben Dario Ramirez, Colombia’s anti-kidnapping czar. “We have to struggle for freedom and side with those who have lost their freedom.”

Ransom Payments Legalized to Save Lives

Kidnappings are often brutal, and victims are sometimes killed over ransoms that are less than the winnings from a lucky weekend in Las Vegas.

In Pereira, Colombia, kidnappers suffocated 4-year-old Brian Steven Ramirez when his parents failed to come up with a $5,000 ransom in December 1996. Eight-year-old Oscar Suazo was found hanged in rural Honduras in February after his coffee-growing family told abductors that they did not have the $11,000 needed to free him, his father told police.

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Because victims are usually killed unless the kidnappers’ demands are met, most countries have legalized ransom payments.

“Before, the idea was that every family had to offer up its dead, like a sacrifice,” said Marta Lucia Aristizabal, a Colombian psychiatrist who has worked with more than 400 kidnapping victims and their families. “But that was cruel.”

Instead, authorities are trying other strategies.

Police departments have set up special anti-kidnapping units, legislatures have passed stiffer sentences--including instituting the death penalty for kidnapping in Guatemala--and families have taken precautions, such as sending their children to private school in unmarked buses. Still, the number of abductions remains alarming.

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Colombia recorded 92 kidnappings in January, on its way to what appears to be another 1,000-plus year. In Guatemala, the citizens’ group Neighborhood Watch recorded 503 abductions from January to mid-March. Guatemalan police officially say those figures are inflated but refused to provide their own statistics. Privately, officers acknowledge that they receive an average of 10 kidnapping reports a week and believe that fewer than half of all abductions are reported.

Law enforcement officials are so concerned that Colombia organized a regional meeting last week to brainstorm and try to find solutions by sharing data and experiences.

“This is worrying,” said Ramirez, Colombia’s anti-kidnapping czar. “It is important enough that there should be an international summit on the problem of kidnappings. This [symposium] is merited to talk about kidnapping, just the way there is a drug summit.”

Call for Less Talk and More Action

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Critics say the problem is that there has been too much talk and not enough action. Guatemala’s Neighborhood Watch even advocates a constitutional state of emergency that would temporarily set aside civil rights to permit roundups of suspected murderers, drug dealers and kidnappers.

“There may be some abuses,” acknowledged Oscar Recinos, the Neighborhood Watch founder. “At first, some of our neighboring countries might be fearful . . . but when they see the results, they will follow our example.”

So how did it get this bad?

Kidnapping used to be a problem of the very rich. Leftist guerrilla groups throughout the region carefully planned abductions for multimillion-dollar ransoms to finance their causes.

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Their victims read like a cross between the Social Register and a sort of Latin American Forbes 400 list: Monterrey industrialist Eugenio Garza Sada was kidnapped and killed in Mexico in 1973; guerrillas grabbed and also killed businessman Ernesto Regalado Duenas of El Salvador in 1971; and other choice targets unwillingly contributed millions of dollars to rebel coffers in the rest of Latin America.

Such abductions became less frequent as the wealthy hired security consultants, installed alarm systems and took other precautions.

Even so, guerrillas still prefer kidnappings that they can justify on ideological grounds. The favorite targets of the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, are foreign business executives and international oil company employees. The ELN, as the rebel group is known, opposes foreign ownership of Colombian resources.

Foreign companies, including Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp., still do business in Colombia despite the threat of guerrilla kidnappings. But the increased risks and costs--for security guards, training and ransoms--are reflected in the deals that they make with the government. That ultimately costs the national treasury money.

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Political Kidnappings Continue After Wars

As the civil wars intensified in Central America and Colombia in the late 1970s and the ‘80s, insurgents, the armed forces and the extreme right all began kidnapping for political reasons: to trade for imprisoned comrades or to “persuade” victims--sometimes by torture--to betray secrets, leave the country or change their behavior.

Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar brought political kidnappings to a new level when he abducted nine prominent journalists and held them for 18 months in 1990 and ’91. He used his captives in his successful campaign to force the government to ban extradition of Colombians, a prohibition that was not lifted until last year, four years after his death in a shootout with security forces.

Political kidnappings continue. Last year, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the nation’s largest guerrilla group, enforced its opposition to local elections by kidnapping hundreds of mayors, city council members and candidates for municipal office. On their release, under threat of death, nearly all of the captured candidates withdrew from their races.

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Colombian authorities blame the rebels for 60% of their nation’s abductions. Besides the political abductions, guerrillas also kidnap for ransom. Some victims are targeted, while others just have the bad luck to stumble across the rebels.

The FARC’s current victims include three American bird-watchers captured in March at a roadblock on one of Colombia’s major highways. A fourth captive escaped April 2.

Central America’s experience shows that the end of civil war can be just the beginning for abductions.

During the 1980s, when El Salvador was at war, a total of 38 kidnappings was reported to police. Last year alone, there were 39.

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Authorities acknowledge that citizens may be reporting more abductions because of increased confidence in the 6-year-old civilian police force that replaced the military police, but they say they believe that the numbers reflect mainly rising crime.

$500,000 Ransom for Salvadoran Farmer

Throughout the Salvadoran conflict, Luis Navarrete and his family never budged from their ranch near San Jose Cancasque, about 12 miles from the Honduran border--deep in rebel territory.

“We did not get involved with either side, and they left us alone,” said Luz Navarrete, his wife of 25 years.

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In February, 10 heavily armed men wearing police uniforms rousted the 70-year-old Navarrete from bed and took him. They left behind his daily heart medication and a note demanding a $500,000 ransom.

When family members said they could not pay, the kidnappers cut off communication.

“Even if I sold everything, I would not have that much money,” said his wife, gesturing toward the laundry sink on the patio, the pig in the paved-over front yard and the concrete-block house.

Such modest comforts make the Navarrete family seem prosperous amid the adobe huts of Chalatenango, El Salvador’s poorest province. In addition, Navarrete often lent money to other farmers, people in the area say.

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His wife explained that he could make loans not because he was wealthy but because he harvested sesame seeds at a time when neighbors were planting corn. He would lend them money and, when they repaid him, sow again.

“He always tried to help people, and we did not expect that they would do this to us,” she said, shaking her auburn braids and dabbing at her eyes with her apron.

Now, with planting season approaching, area farmers say they do not know where they will get the money for seeds and fertilizer without Navarrete.

Police say that they are tracking the movements of a gang they suspect in the kidnapping and that they believe the gang members will lead authorities to Navarrete. Then their plan is to rescue him.

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Their biggest concern, they say, is whether he can have survived this long without his heart medicine.

Central American law enforcement officials say kidnappings have increased since the wars partly because rebels and soldiers trained in the craft of abductions during conflicts go into business for themselves when a peace treaty is signed.

“I get a lot of ex-military kidnappers on this end of the country,” said a police inspector in Santa Ana, in western El Salvador. “In Usulutan [a former rebel stronghold], they get ex-guerrillas.”

Last July--10 months after 16-year-old Abraham Suster was released by kidnappers who captured him outside his high school--police found the underground cell where he was held for nearly a year. The cell contained both his book bag and a rental agreement that led to another hiding place.

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Guillermo Sol Bang--a prominent industrialist and leader of the extreme right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena--recognized the second place as the same cell he was held in for six months in 1991.

Kidnapping survivors Eduardo Salume, a well-known businessman abducted before Sol Bang, and Alberto Antonio Hill, a 24-year-old who was released four months before Suster’s kidnapping, each remembered one of the cramped spaces from their captivity.

“The four kidnappings had been committed by the same people,” attorney Castillo said. Police now believe that the head of the band was Raul Granillo, a former guerrilla commander known as Marcelo, and have issued a warrant for his arrest. They have arrested a dozen other suspects, including an army captain who was later released.

For Some Kidnappers, It’s Just a Day’s Work

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The first two kidnappings presumably were to raise money for a guerrilla faction. The second two were for personal profit. Significantly, the targets also changed from wealthy, middle-aged men to youths.

“Criminals know that economically powerful men have bodyguards, and they don’t want to take the risk,” said Mauricio Rodriguez, chief of the criminal investigations division of the Salvadoran police. Kidnappers instead look for people with less protection, he said.

They choose victims like Paulina, a frail-looking blond who asked that her last name not be published because her kidnappers have not been caught and she is still afraid of them, three years after her abduction. A week before her 18th birthday, Paulina was abducted as she waited for her school bus at a Guatemala City gas station.

“Two cars pulled up with eight men with guns,” she recalled. “They threw a T-shirt over my face and put a gun to my head.”

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They locked her in a room with a television and VCR, where she lost track of time. They asked her how much her school tuition was and about her family and friends to figure out how much ransom to demand.

“They told me my parents didn’t care about me,” she said. “They said that if I didn’t obey them, they would kill me.”

Such stories are typical of the early stages of an abduction, said Aristizabal, the Colombian psychiatrist.

Captors pump their victims for information, tell them that their families are refusing to pay and constantly threaten them. Victims become afraid to even hope for freedom.

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“Every day, they said I was leaving,” Paulina remembered. “When they finally released me in the street, I thought they were going to kill me.”

After her family paid an undisclosed ransom, she was dumped two hours south of the city and walked until a car with teenage girls in it--she was afraid of anyone else--passed her on the highway. She flagged them down, and they took her to a telephone.

Devastating Effects on Victims, Kin

The effect of kidnapping on victims and their families can be devastating, Aristizabal said.

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“People are greatly affected, not so much during captivity, because they draw on internal resources to survive,” Aristizabal said. “They pull out resources from places they do not have them.”

The effects show later. Paulina recognizes that the kidnapping changed her.

“I don’t like superficial things like clothing,” she said. “Yesterday, I went to a disco, and I was always looking around to see whether somebody was watching how much I was paying. I was a very secure person, and now I’m not.”

A few months after she was released, her 3-year-old cousin was kidnapped.

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“They don’t care,” she said of the abductors. “For them, it’s like work.”

As Recinos, the Neighborhood Watch founder, said: “Kidnapping has become an industry.”

Last year, Colombian police broke up a kidnapping ring that had an office, lawyers and rental cars, Ramirez said. Some gangs are even going international.

In January 1997, Daniel Fernando Palacios escaped from the maximum-security prison in Guatemala City. The 30-year-old, who is known as “the Negotiator,” had been charged with 20 abductions in Guatemala from 1994 to 1996.

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Palacios was captured 11 months later--by Salvadoran police rounding up another kidnapping ring in their country. The police believe that Palacios organized the ring that abducted two Salvadorans last year.

Similarly, Guatemalan and Honduran police say an increasing number of the gangs arrested for kidnappings in their countries includes people from other Central American nations.

Kidnapping is simply one of the easiest crimes to commit, police officials say.

“After drug trafficking, it’s the fastest way to make money,” Ramirez said.

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Castillo noted: “Kidnapping is an extremely difficult crime to investigate.”

To get a conviction, police must nearly always catch the kidnappers in the act because they disappear afterward and usually leave no trace. But the kidnappers must be caught in a way that minimizes danger to the victim.

Now police are trying to make it more difficult to get away with kidnapping. Their main strategy is to try to safely retrieve both victims and ransoms.

“Last year, we had 206 rescues,” Ramirez said.

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Three in five of those kidnapped by criminals--rather than guerrillas--were rescued by police, he said.

But as Beverly Sandoval’s family has learned, an arrest does not necessarily lead to a conviction.

Outrage in Guatemala Over Suspects’ Release

In recent weeks, Guatemalans have shared the family’s outrage as the courts released 14 of the 25 suspects in her kidnap-rape-murder for lack of evidence. At best, critics suspect sloppy detective work; at worst, corruption.

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“If this can happen in a case this well known, what must happen in other cases?” her stepfather asked.

Sandoval’s abduction touched Guatemala’s heart, providing a focus for the fear and anger against a crime wave that has worsened in the 16 months since a peace agreement ended 3 1/2 decades of civil war.

Immediately after she was kidnapped, abductors demanded a $1-million ransom but eventually agreed to free her for considerably less. Police said the demand for an exorbitant sum is a typical negotiating tactic to panic family members and make them feel relieved about paying a lower amount.

In her case, the money was paid, but Sandoval never reappeared.

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During the months that followed, Guatemala waited with the family. Somber crowds gathered at the graveside each of the three times that a body thought to be hers was exhumed and examined. After her remains were finally identified, people across Guatemala mourned.

They tentatively applauded the arrests early this year of a band accused of kidnapping her and several other people. They have followed the trials, first with interest--and then with bitterness as charges were dismissed.

“It has been agonizing to go in and face her killers,” said Beverly Richardson, Sandoval’s mother.

Observers were particularly infuriated at a hearing in February to decide whether two of the suspects would be bound over for trial.

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With the case file sitting on his desk, the judge told onlookers that he had heard about the existence of a deposition that would give him enough evidence to order a trial.

But the deposition was not in the file, he said, and without it he did not have enough evidence to proceed and was forced to dismiss the charges.

Overworked, underpaid Guatemalan prosecutors are routinely bribed to omit evidence, provoking case dismissals. People were shocked, however, at the judge’s insinuation that they would do so in such a highly publicized case.

“Beverly Sandoval’s case has become not only a symbol of public insecurity and the inability of the government to ensure [safety] in compliance with its constitutional mandate but also [of] the impunity that reigns here,” said an editorial in the newspaper La Hora.

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Further undermining public trust, the former No. 3 officer in Guatemala’s anti-kidnapping unit is facing trial as part of an alleged abduction ring. A high-ranking detective is also under arrest for kidnapping in El Salvador.

Colombia purged its anti-kidnapping unit two years ago, but authorities still must keep careful watch over members to weed out corruption, Ramirez said.

Many potential victims have simply decided that the only way to be safe is to leave their country.

Luis Pedro Aguirre, who was kidnapped five years ago, graduated from high school in the United States last year. His parents have been too terrified to bring him back to Guatemala.

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But many other Guatemalans, Colombians and other middle-class Latin Americans do not have the option of leaving.

“Do you know how many hostages there are in Guatemala?” Recinos asked. “Eleven million. All of us. Because none of us knows at what moment he will become a victim.”


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