YAUTEPEC, Mexico — Gunmen grabbed a taxi driver near his home in this bustling central Mexico farm town in December and demanded a $3,000 ransom. His family paid but his captors killed him anyway.
A 22-year-old student was taken, slain and dumped by a highway after his family failed to produce $30,000. Gunmen broke into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, picked out a hardware store owner, kidnapped and killed him, too.
In December alone, at least seven people were kidnapped in this town of 100,000 people, according to a tally by community organizers. All but one was slain, several after a ransom was paid to kidnappers that officials describe as a fragment of a nationwide drug cartel looking for new sources of income after authorities arrested and killed many of its leaders.
Frightened and furious, residents launched a series of protests outside city hall demanding government action. The state's tough-talking new public security chief took control of the municipal police department last month and sent hundreds of state police to Yautepec, promising prompt arrests.
But in this proving ground in Mexico's fight against a nationwide surge in kidnappings, people are still staying home after dark, watching the streets for strange cars and feeling sick with dread whenever a loved one doesn't come home on time.
Residents say the reinforcements are welcome but they have no confidence that government institutions they claim are rotten with corruption can have any real long-term impact on a problem that has reached epidemic proportions in this sunbaked stretch of sugarcane and tomato fields dotted with the weekend homes of Mexico City's upper-middle class.
The mayor dismisses their complaints as politically inspired "psychosis." In the absence of genuine statistics, no one really knows.
"At this moment there are roadblocks but we don't see any investigation. There's no information. That's the reason for the people's sense of impotence, for their grief," said Israel Serna, a state lawmaker for the leftist Citizens' Movement party who participated in the marches on city hall. "The people don't see their leader, their mayor, their congressman, facing the problem, so people start to organize."
Even officials acknowledge that the kidnapping spike is a direct result of Mexico's crackdown on organized crime. As the country waged its U.S.-backed offensive over seven years, larger gangs were dismantled. Thousands of lower-ranking criminals diversified into kidnapping, targeting prosperous and working-class families in places like Yautepec as quick, easy sources of cash. Last year, as Mexico and the U.S. touted the arrests of capos and said organized-crime-related murders were down, reported kidnappings hit a 16-year high.
The official count was 1,695 but government polls show that less than 2 percent of kidnappings are reported to police. If accurate, the real number of abductions would exceed 100,000 a year.
Yautepec sits in the center of a relatively prosperous and heavily populated stretch of suburbanizing countryside that stretches east from Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos, the second smallest of Mexico's 31 states and among the top five in kidnappings per capita, according to federal statistics. Cuernavaca is one of the historic bases of the Beltran-Leyva cartel, a once-powerful drug-trafficking organization splintered in recent years by killings and arrests of its commanders.
One cell of Beltran-Leyva gunmen began kidnapping members of the state's rising middle class — shopkeepers, schoolteachers and prosperous farmers living along 30 miles of federal highway that slices from Cuernavaca through Yautepec to the larger city of Cuautla, said Jesus Alberto Capella, a former Tijuana police chief named last month as secretary of public security in Morelos.
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