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.
"The lieutenants, the orphans, dedicated themselves to this type of criminal activity," Capella said. "The crisis in Yautepec has to do with this criminal group carrying out kidnappings more crudely than we're used to, killing its victims, who don't have great financial resources."
Cappella and the Morelos state prosecutor say they are looking hard at local government complicity with the kidnappers.
"Criminal organizations couldn't succeed anywhere in the world, carrying out such serious crimes, if they aren't helped by corrupt police, corrupt prosecutors, corrupt judges, corrupt institutions," Cappella said. "The most important war is the war in the streets, against criminality. The harder war is the second one, inside our institutions."
Yautepec Mayor Agustin Alonso said he knows he is under suspicion.
"We're all under investigation, all of us, even me, and since I have nothing to hide, here I am," he said. "My life is an open book."
Alonso, a member of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, said he knows of only six kidnappings in the city since he become mayor a year ago and dismisses the protests as spawned by false reports of kidnappings spread by members of opposing political parties who want to push him out of office.
"The people's fear created a psychosis and now they're assuming that a lot of people have been kidnapped when that isn't the case," he said. "Now they're reporting 10 kidnappings in a week that never happened. What's the goal? Maybe it's political ... I see political figures in these marches who want to tell the people, 'Look, I'm the solution. Vote for me.'"
President Enrique Pena Nieto pledged during his 2012 campaign that he would swiftly and sharply reduce the crimes that most affect ordinary Mexicans — homicide, kidnapping and extortion.
Under pressure, his administration announced on Jan. 28 that it was launching a 10-point anti-abduction strategy to be led by a new national anti-kidnapping czar, who told reporters that kidnapping had become "a national emergency."
The administration promised better coordination between state, federal and local governments, retraining of ineffective anti-kidnapping police units, development of a national database of kidnapping reports and tighter control of prisons where inmates run kidnapping rings from behind bars.
"Kidnapping can't be a crime that's profitable and low-risk for criminals," said Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, the country's most powerful law enforcement official.
That's exactly what it has become in Morelos, a short drive south of Mexico City.
Among the demonstrators outside Alonso's office has been Maria Ruth Gonzalez Vidales, 55, who owns a small clothing shop in the center of town. Her husband is an auto mechanic.
In 2012, their son Cesar, a 33-year-old architect and engineer, was kidnapped as he drove through Cuernavaca to visit his family in Yautepec. The family got together $10,000 and left it in packets of $2,000 in a cereal box in Cuernavaca. Five days later their son was found dead in the trunk of his car, a few hundred feet from the office of the state prosecutor, where the family had just reported him kidnapped.
"They haven't caught anybody," she said. "It's as if the kidnappers are saying to themselves, 'Nothing is going to happen, we'll keep up our wave of violence, of kidnappings, and no one will do anything.'"
She says she has no fear of retaliation for participating in the marches on city hall.
"I feel as if I'm already dead," she said. "I'm not afraid of anyone seeing me. I want everyone to know. I'm going to keep going and one day these people will pay."
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein