A Mexican mother who put all 11 of her murdered son’s kidnappers behind bars has become a symbol of the increasingly private fight against outlaws in this crime-riddled country.
The 11th kidnapper was arrested last week.
Isabel Miranda de Wallace’s son Hugo, then 31, was beaten to death the day he was seized in 2005 — the same day she launched her own long and risky search for his captors.
By canvassing her neighborhood, hanging reward posters and doing her own detective work, Miranda de Wallace was able to identify all the kidnappers and turn them into police.
“The authorities do not lift a finger. The only thing they are interested in is reducing the number of cases, so they say there is insufficient evidence and close the file,” says Eduardo Gallo, the head of Mexico United Against Crime, a private association.
Gallo used his own devices several years ago to find the gang responsible for kidnapping and killing his 25-year-old daughter.
He says that his and Wallace’s case are exceptional, however, because they did their own detective work instead of hiring private eyes.
Mexico has been gripped by drug violence that has killed more than 28,000 people since 2006, when the government launched a massive military crackdown on organized crime.
Kidnappings have increased by more than 300 percent in the past five years, Jose Luis Obando, head of Congress’s Public Security Commission, said earlier this year.
The Citizens’ Council for Public Security, a rights group, estimates there have been 5,300 kidnappings in the last four years, 80 percent of them not reported by families.
Private investigations don’t always yield results: The parents of Jose Antonio Robledo, an engineer abducted in January last year, have been searching for his captors for nearly two years with little to show for it.
They have obtained bank records and telephone numbers and even met with members of a local drug cartel, but are still prepared for the worst and make regular trips to hospitals and morgues.
“The regional prosecutor has never worked on the case and it is extremely difficult to get the federal prosecutor to take it seriously, if you don’t stay on their backs,” his mother Maria Guadalupe says.
She and her husband recently took part in a meeting with the families of 200 people who have disappeared.
“Most have undertaken personal searches and with far fewer resources than [Miranda de Wallace],” she said.
Blanca Martinez, the director of the Fray Juan de Larios Center for Human Rights, says the police have taken note.
“The police ask the families, ‘What do you think we should do?’ and push them to take the same risks Miranda de Wallace took,” she said.
The unreliability of the police, who are themselves sometimes behind the kidnappings, makes civilian investigations a dangerous pursuit.
Last month Mexican soldiers freed 10 kidnap victims, including several migrant workers and a six-month-old baby, thought to have been held by police officers in northeastern Mexico.
Distrust of the police has meanwhile fueled the rise of vigilante justice.
“Many of them will make use of a private detective and when they find out who the culprit is they take justice into their own hands,” Gallo says. “I know this exists, because some police officers suggested it to me.”