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Mexico mourns another kidnapping death

MEXICO CITY — A father's pain over his son's death at the hands of abductors has reverberated across a nation overwhelmed by the rising violence of a brutal drug war, sparking a public outcry and leaving the government scrambling to clean up its discredited security forces.

Mexico City announced it was disbanding its Judicial Police force, heads have rolled at the Attorney General's Office and citizen groups are organizing a silent march later this month in the aftermath of the slaying of Fernando Marti, the 14-year-old son of a wealthy industrialist. Marti was kidnapped June 4 by men dressed in Federal Agency of Investigations uniforms.

Authorities have two police agents and one civilian in custody in connection with the crime.

"Let there be no more Fernandos!'' his father, Alejandro Marti, said late Monday after a memorial Mass at which the founder of a national chain of sports stores and exercise studios alternately buried his face in his hands and wiped his eyes.

Surrounded by hundreds of mourners paying their respects, Marti called his son "a boy who represents the suffering over everything that is happening here."

Mexicans have lived for decades with police corruption and a legal system that convicts fewer than one person for every 100 crimes committed, according to the Business Sector's Coordinating Counsel. They've put up with a rising number of abductions, but the Marti case has gripped the nation. Even President Felipe Calderon showed up at a Mass last week for the slain boy.

Cleaning up the police forces was one of the battle cries of the decades-long struggle for democracy and among the first pledges made by former President Vicente Fox in July 2000, the day after his historic election ended the Institutional Revolutionary Party's seven-decade stranglehold on politics.

Fernando Marti's abduction and killing has resonated in a nation that expected a democracy dividend. Political commentators and ordinary citizens compare the number of deaths to the situation in Iraq and the level of brutality to Colombia.

"In this first stage, what democracy has brought is just an exchange of power among political parties," said Raul Fierro, the commercial director of Sport City, part of Marti's Grupo Marti, which was sold last year. "Nothing has been done, and we cannot remain silent any longer."

While Mexico City is especially hard hit, the wave of kidnapping extends across the country. Officially there were 438 abductions in Mexico last year, a 35 percent increase over the 325 in 2006. Unofficially, the news media and security consultants speak of hundreds more, because many go unreported.

The Marti family negotiated by cell phone and paid a ransom that's thought to be around $2 million. To drive home their demands, the abductors killed the driver of the son's car, Jorge Palma, leaving his body in a car alongside the bodyguard, Christian Salome, several days after the kidnapping. Salome had been strangled and left for dead, but survived.

Last week, two more kidnapping/killings of members of the country's business class sent shivers through wealthy Mexican families and top executives.

Cenovio Argaez, a prominent fruit grower in the state of Tabasco, was found garroted with barbed wire in his car last Thursday after his family paid half a million dollars in ransom. On the same day in Culiacan, ground zero of the drug war, 35-year-old Marco del Rincon, the son of a local industrialist, was found dead in the trunk of his car hours after he disappeared.

On Monday, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard announced that he was dismantling the capital's Judicial Police force and would create a detective force to investigate crime as one of 20 measures to fight the problem.

At the federal level, Assistant Attorney General Noe Ramirez Mandujano, who's in charge of investigations into organized crime, resigned July 31, just after the Marti family took out newspaper ads pleading with the abductors to return their son.

Mexican social commentator Roger Bartra said that many in the country, including in the government, seemed to think that democracy would bring about automatic reforms to an old system.

"If there is no democracy, we feel bad," Bartra said. "But Mexicans now have the

sensation that democracy does not end problems, it does not necessarily resolve


The Marti kidnapping has prompted business groups to demand that the government take action to end the violence, develop well-trained and well-paid police groups and stop a climate of impunity, in which few criminals are prosecuted and fewer still are sentenced to prison.

The crime also caused Alfredo Harp, one of the country's wealthiest former bankers, who was kidnapped in 1994, to step into the public eye. Harp, who's never publicly discussed his kidnapping, published a full-page ad in local newspapers to decry the Marti kidnapping. "We condemn the impunity and the violence. Enough is enough!'' it said.

The Business Sector's Coordinating Council echoed Harp in demanding that the government take immediate action. The council, which includes private-sector organizations, published a full-page ad in newspapers Monday that censured the government for failing to guarantee Mexicans' safety.

Calling the situation "intolerable'' and warning that "Mexico will not advance'' as long as the safety and legal problems continue, the business group warned that people were unwilling to wait another eight years. Longtime political leader Porfirio Munoz Ledo called the ad "an ultimatum" to the government to clean up the legal system, police forces and prisons.

Calderon has asked the National Congress to approve a bill calling for life sentences for kidnappers. Mexico doesn't have the death penalty.

The country's efforts to modernize its police forces in the past have been only partially effective. But analysts, business groups and grass-roots organizations are hoping that the stature of this victim's family finally will galvanize the nation to change.

"We all dream of a just Mexico," said Laudelino Cueto, the Roman Catholic priest who officiated at the Mass on Monday evening. "Hopefully Fernando's death was not in vain."

(Bussey is a staff writer for The Miami Herald.)

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