Singer's Sisters Apparently Abducted


The drama did not end onstage.

Laura Zapata had just finished her performance in "La Casa de Bernarda Alba," a play that ends with a suicide. Joining in the standing ovation, witnesses said later, was a man who stalked the actress and Ernestina Sodi, a former Miss Mexico City, out of the San Rafael Theater.

Zapata and Sodi, sisters of Mexican superstar singer Thalia, disappeared five blocks away, after a vehicle blocked the path of their red Volkswagen Jetta. Hooded men with black gloves and a hammer smashed the car's windows, witnesses said, and forced the women into one of two vehicles that had been trailing them.

The incident Sunday night appears to have been the latest in Mexico's seemingly unstoppable plague of kidnappings. Criminals extort billions of dollars a year from victims and their companies, contributing to a feeling among Mexicans--even those who are not wealthy--that authorities cannot protect them.

Abductions became a leading get-rich-quick scheme in the 1980s, flourished during the financial crash of 1994-95 and then decreased somewhat--only to grow more frequent this year. The Mexican business association Coparmex lists 331 reported cases in 2002, up from 221 last year. In the Americas, only Colombia and Brazil suffer more abductions. Security experts believe the real number here is four to five times higher.

Most wealthy families facing a ransom demand do not report kidnappings to police, because police officers are often accused of being the perpetrators. Also, kidnap gangs frequently threaten to kill their hostages to discourage such reporting.

Relatives of the two sisters declined to discuss the case with news media and told authorities that they would neither file a criminal complaint nor welcome police involvement.

"That means they are thinking of paying ransom," Mexico City's top prosecutor, Bernardo Batiz, told reporters Tuesday. "We completely respect the family's decision."

The missing women are among the four older sisters of Ariadna Thalia Sodi Miranda, world renowned as Thalia for such hit songs as "Amor a la Mexicana" (Love Mexican Style) and such soap opera roles as that of a poor servant who wins the heart of a rich man. She performed during last week's Latin Grammys in Los Angeles.

Thalia is married to Tommy Mottola, chief executive of Sony Music Entertainment, a unit of Sony Corp. Mexican media speculated that the gang was trying to extort money from the couple in return for the sisters' freedom.

Milenio, a Mexico City daily, reported that Thalia and her mother were en route to Mexico from the United States. It quoted an employee of Zapata as saying that Zapata's former husband was involved in ransom negotiations.

Batiz said Sunday's incident was a well-organized attack by at least four men. One witness flagged down a police car, which chased the gang's vehicles along a major thoroughfare, Circuito Interior, in the Tlaxpana neighborhood.

The women's Jetta was found a few blocks from the apparent kidnap location, along with a gray Ford Windstar van used by the gang. Police said the van had been stolen last January from a computer firm.

For all the family's secrecy, the incident received much public attention and shook Mexico's performing arts community. Zapata, 46, is a star in her own right, with dozens of Mexican soap opera roles in a 30-year career. Sodi, a few years younger, is a writer.

"It's a shame that in our country, kidnappings are as commonly discussed as enchiladas," said Leticia Pedrajo, who performed Sunday with Zapata in the play by Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca.

"I am dismayed that these things keep happening and nothing is done about them," Pedrajo said, adding that "you cannot leave your workplace in peace because you never know whether you're going to make it home."

After complaints by the Mexican actors union, city officials agreed to reinforce police patrols outside theaters starting in February 2001. But the arrangement lapsed a year later during a change in the city's security hierarchy.

Wealthy families have been known to pay kidnappers as much as $30 million in ransom, but the crime has become so diversified here that middle-class Mexicans also feel threatened.

Most common is the "express kidnap," in which a victim is abducted, forced to withdraw money from ATMs and then released.

About 4,000 such crimes are reported in Mexico each year and are recorded as violent robberies rather than kidnappings.

Last winter in Tijuana, seven law students were charged with kidnapping a 12-year-old girl and demanding $150,000 to pay their tuition. Maids have been held for a few hundred dollars.

President Vicente Fox, elected two years ago, acknowledged this month that his campaign promise to end such insecurity was still "an outstanding debt to our citizens."

In his Sept. 1 state of the nation address, however, Fox insisted that his government was taking action. Federal police, he said, had broken up 20 kidnap gangs during his administration, arrested 94 gang members and "resolved" kidnappings involving 142 hostages, all of whom were freed.

One such gang, rounded up here in July after collecting $3.5 million in ransoms from 11 abductions, allegedly was led by a police detective and included a former city prosecutor as its "legal advisor."

But Mexico's weak and corrupt judicial system often lets such suspects off the hook, discouraging relatives of kidnap victims from turning to the legal system.

Such distrust is evident in the case of the two sisters, and even more so in the case of Hector Pineda Velazquez.

Pineda, a federal congressman, was seized by masked men from his ranch in Guerrero state and held for more than a month. His family did not notify the media or ask the police for help. His son won the lawmaker's release earlier this month for an undisclosed ransom.

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