Diagnosis: irony

Times Staff Writer

The kidnappers who abducted Dr. Fernando Guzman didn't plan on triggering a public health crisis. Guzman -- blindfolded and bleeding from a bullet wound -- was supposed to be just another victim.

But the capture of the general surgeon at one of Tijuana's leading hospitals drew extraordinary attention even during a wave of drug-war violence.

Doctors at the city's main hospitals threatened to go on strike if he wasn't released. Government officials as far as Mexico City took an interest in his case.

Guzman, his wavy white hair pinned under a blindfold, said his captors were friendly, offering him fruit, water and sandwiches in their remote safe house. "They told me, 'You're famous,' " Guzman said.

But they were also nervous.

Thirty-six hours after they grabbed him, they let him go.

The rare display of civic outrage apparently forced organized crime to cough him up.

It could have ended there, a ray of hope in a dark season of violence.

But two weeks later, the doctor's story took a bizarre turn. Last weekend, in the aftermath of one of the city's bloodiest gun battles, organized-crime gunmen once again came to his door.

This time, they were seeking medical help.

Guzman was thrust in the media spotlight again, perplexed at the center of a bloody gangland feud.

Guzman's odyssey began April 15, while he was driving down the Via Rapida in his Hummer on his way to work at Regional Hospital No. 1. A leading laparoscopic surgeon, Guzman is the public hospital's director and works nights across town at his own hospital, Clinica Guzman.

Three cars boxed him in, and out of them jumped several heavily armed, masked men. They started wrestling the doctor into their car. When Guzman resisted, they shot him in the left calf muscle. Guzman fainted. He woke up in the safe house, terrified, still bleeding.

Guzman's abduction came amid a plague of crime targeting the city's medical community. About 20 doctors have been kidnapped and dozens have received calls demanding as much as $50,000, according to the city's medical associations.

Dr. Eric Rosenberg Diaz, president of the Tijuana Medical Assn., said he believes the kidnappers simply go down the list of physicians in the Yellow Pages.

"Basta" -- enough, Rosenberg said. "We feel like sitting ducks. . . . The situation is now intolerable."

Hours after Guzman's kidnapping, doctors' groups, fed up with authorities ignoring their concerns, told top government officials in Mexicali and Mexico City that except for emergency room visits, they would stop seeing patients.

The next night a delegation of medical professionals got a personal audience with Baja California Atty. Gen. Rommel Moreno Manjarrez, who promised action, Rosenberg said.

What happened next is unclear. But within hours, Guzman's kidnappers were bundling him into a car. "They told me, 'You're a man of good works. We're going to free you,' " he said.

They dropped him off on a rural road and gave him 200 pesos, about $20, for a taxi back to Tijuana. He walked for two hours before he found one.

In the city, he was reunited with his son, who whisked him off to his second home in Rancho Del Rey in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego. There, more than 50 people greeted him to celebrate and say a rosary.

In the city's 4-year-old plague of kidnappings targeting the upper classes, Guzman is one of only a handful of victims released quickly, and apparently without having to pay a ransom. Moreno, the attorney general, did not provide details on how Guzman's release was orchestrated.

Still, after last Saturday's wild shootout, some people came to their own conclusions.

The clash between rival groups of gunmen left 13 dead and several injured. Some gunmen put two of their wounded companions in a car and sped off across Tijuana in search of a hospital.

They showed up at Clinica Guzman, a courtyard-style building in a working-class neighborhood near downtown.

The gunmen brought the injured men to the glass front doors and asked for help, one neighborhood resident said. Later, state police descended on the neighborhood and, two blocks from the hospital, another gun battle ensued. Two gunmen died.

Reports of what had happened raised suspicions for some about Guzman. Talk about him persisted even when, with his leg still bandaged, he took part in a large march to protest organized crime Thursday.

People wondered aloud if the gunmen came to his hospital figuring he owed them a favor. Did Guzman earn his release by treating drug-cartel criminals during his captivity? Was he, in fact, a cartel doctor?

Guzman reacts to such questions with a mix of frustration and sadness. The gunmen chose his hospital by chance, he said. He wasn't even there in the early morning when they showed up. His staff immediately alerted authorities. The doctor on duty, he said, was unable to treat the men and they were transferred under tight security to Tijuana's General Hospital.

It's unfortunate, Guzman said, that such stories have distracted attention from the public safety crisis.

Some police intelligence and media reports have said the doctor's kidnapping may have been one reason for last weekend's bloody shootout between rival factions of the Arellano Felix drug cartel.

One cartel boss named Jorge Briseno Lopez, or "El Cholo," reportedly was feuding with another boss, Teodoro Garcia Simental, "El Teo." "El Cholo" blamed "El Teo" for increasingly reckless criminal escapades, which included the doctor's abduction, according to the reports. The violence was bringing too much heat on organized crime and disrupting their criminal enterprises, one police report states.

Guzman said he doesn't follow the twists and turns of the gang wars. He's just happy to be back at work treating his patients and to be recovering quickly from the bullet wound.

His colleagues and patients saved his life, he said, adding, "I didn't know that they appreciated me and loved me so much."

Like others, he says, he hopes the civic protest that prompted his release marked a turning point in the seemingly endless war against organized crime.

He quotes an old saying: "Fue la gota que derramo el vaso." It was the drop that spilled the cup.

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richard.marosi@latimes.com

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