By Mark Stevenson
The Associated Press
MEXICO CITY — After kidnappers in police uniforms set up a fake checkpoint to snatch 14-year-old Fernando Marti off a Mexico City street, his businessman father paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom, and waited for his son's safe return.
Instead, the boy and his driver turned up dead, their bodies found in car trunks. Days later, prosecutors alleged that a police detective was a key participant in the kidnapping plot.
Suspicions of police involvement in such kidnap-killings have moved a nation where many had grown numb to kidnappings and the drug cartels' beheadings and midday shootouts. Mass street protests are planned in several cities. Some lawmakers are even changing their minds about opposition to capital punishment, saying police who kidnap and kill should be put to death.
"They should put their eyes out, so they can't commit any more crimes," said Ignacio Noriega, a 26-year-old university student who says he no longer feels safe anywhere. "Prison isn't a solution anymore. They just form their own gangs inside prison and come out stronger."
Mexico has one of the world's highest kidnapping rates, according to the anti-violence group Pax Christi, and the problem is only getting worse. Kidnappings are up 9.1 percent this year, averaging 65 per month nationwide, according to the Attorney General's Office. The prosecutor's office blames a growing web of drug cartels, cops, former cops and informants who point out potentially lucrative victims.
Official numbers vastly understate the problem, since most kidnappings go unreported for fear of the police.
The nonprofit Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies determined the actual kidnapping rate to be more than 500 per month after surveying Mexicans about unreported crime. Fully 86 percent said they had little or no trust in their local police in the 2006 survey, which was released on Wednesday.
Mexico City's top cop, Public Safety Secretary Manuel Mondragon, acknowledged that "a spider web of corruption has penetrated many parts of our department."
Federal police chief Genaro Garcia told local media "there are criminals who have infiltrated police forces," but added, "we are waging a frontal war on corruption."
Rich Mexicans have long resigned themselves to hiring private security teams and negotiators to deal with the threat. But now, even middle-class people are at risk, and kidnappers are increasingly killing their captives, even if a ransom is paid.
Just three days before Marti's decomposed body was found on Aug. 1, a family of six was found dead in their home in western Jalisco state, allegedly targeted by kidnappers aided by corrupt cops.
Four victims, including two children, were shot in the head. A teenage boy's throat was slashed. His mother was asphyxiated with a plastic bag.
One of the family's sons had been kidnapped and released after a ransom was paid, but the gang - allegedly aided by a corrupt cop in the state anti-kidnapping squad - decided the family had much more money and threatened more kidnappings unless they handed over more cash.
The gang then killed the family after the son realized the police officer was part of the scheme, prosecutors say.
Alejandro Cesar Zamudio, a commander of Mexico City detectives, defended the officer's innocence and said the allegations were motivated by rivalries within the department.
Anger over the inability to trust Mexican police boiled over last week, when residents of the central Mexico town of Tlapanala managed to surround and disarm a gang of seven kidnappers posing as police. They held them for 24 hours, pounding the men to bloody pulps "with whatever they could lay their hands on," Mayor Jose Villalba said.
"The town was very angry ... the truth is, they wanted to beat me, too," Villalba said. He finally convinced the mob to hand the suspects - who were carrying fake police credentials - over to state police.
Mexico abandoned the death penalty long ago and considers life sentences to be cruel and unusual punishment. Only in 2005 did Mexico agree to extradite suspects facing life sentences in the United States. But this week, the small Green Party proposed reinstating capital punishment for police who participate in kidnappings, or for kidnappers who kill their victims.
Kidnapper cops now face up to 50 years in prison, and the government says it won't consider executions, but President Felipe Calderon has proposed life imprisonment for such crimes. He plans a high-profile meeting with state officials and prosecutors Thursday to come up with new measures against the violence.
Mexico's Attorney General's office says increasingly diversified organized crime groups are responsible.
Gangs that might have focused on stealing cars "now operate in drug trafficking, kidnapping and money laundering, among other things, with no central control nor any one gang dominating in any of the criminal activities. That is why kidnapping has grown more competitive, with kidnappers using much more violence against each other and against the victims, in a bid to gain territory, markets or dominance."
Anti-crime sentiment has proven to be a powerful force in Mexico, where more than a quarter-million people staged a mass protest against crime and kidnappings in 2004, damaging the presidential aspirations of the capital's mayor at the time, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Another such mass march has been called for Aug. 30.
Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino worries that growing anger could lead to more vigilanteism and mob justice.
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"It is clear that the public is indignant, is angry, and it has a right to be," Mourino said. "If we are not able to reach agreements and channel these demands into clear and concrete steps, then yes, people could start taking other types of action that wouldn't solve the problem or benefit anyone."