MONTERREY, MEXICO — Kidnapping and Mexico, they go together like beans and rice. There has always been a kidnapping industry in Mexico. It’s not for nothing that we have become the kidnapping capital of the world. Yep, that’s a true, fun fact.
The most basic kidnapping operations are the cells dedicated to kidnapping wealthy individuals or their family members and demanding that people pay a nice fat ransom in exchange. When I was a kid, the country went into a lolla-kidnapping-palooza. In every state you heard about kidnapping gangs, usually colluding with the cops. They came in many forms. There’s the relatives kidnapping racket I just mentioned. There’s also what we here call the “express kidnapping,” in which you are grabbed while dialing on the ATM. The thugs pack you into their car and take you to different ATMs until they empty your account.
But those are very cut-and-dry, for-profit affairs. They aren’t very interesting. I’m gonna focus on a particular type of kidnapping we here call the “levanton.” In English it translates to “pick up.” It comes from the slang narcos use when referring to the kidnapping of a rival to, um, “disappear” him (sometimes her) without seeking a ransom. Unlike those who are ransomed, los levantados know that there is no negotiation and that they will surely be tortured, mutilated and killed. This type of kidnapping is not only about the money, it’s about the ethics and justice.
So how do the narcos go about kidnapping their “marks”? They are actually very thorough about their job, very professional. It’s kinda like in the movies. They will follow him for a few weeks, have all his routines staked out and then strike when they have concluded at what moment the mark is at his most defenseless. Here are the stages:
UNO. First comes the visual ID-ing of the victim by various hired helpers, who go unnoticed most of the time and serve their purpose by pointing out the target in a crowd. This is usually done at public places: strip-clubs, gyms, parties — you name it, they have someone watching. Even the clown at your little kids party could be in on it. Next comes the intel gathering, where the details of the home residence are memorized. They check out the living style of the inhabitants and calculate his potential net worth.
DOS. The helpers transfer this information to their superiors, who then dedicate the next few weeks to following and studying their victims, their routines and schedules. Finally, the time and place to strike is chosen.
TRES. The kidnapping is always fast and violent. It usually take place on the street and a minimum of three cars are involved. The main carrier SUV does the actual levanton, or “pick up.” The other two provide backup and clear the escape routes. Usually aided, sometimes even escorted, by the police, the narcos take the mark to one of their many safe houses.
CUATRO. Here comes the fun part: torture and interrogation, and torture again and again as much as necessary. If you are not shaken by being beaten up in the head with assorted rifle butts, pistol-whipped and generally used as a punching bag by sadistic fuckers, you get the tablazo treatment. It comes from the word “tabla,” or “board.” The kidnappers usually have this specially crafted wooden board, a two-by-four with a handle for grip and holes drilled into the main body for less wind resistance. They drop your trousers, bend you over and hit you continuously with the wooden board till your ass turns to purple mush and you are left looking like some diseased red-assed baboon. (The cops here like to use the tablazo, too.)
CINCO. Here happens one of two things: either the marks are killed or set free. The outcome depends on the mark’s occupation or the success of the negotiations. If the ransom has been paid, you’re free to go. But if you’re working for the rival cartels, wave bye bye and look into the camera. You’ll see a bright white light and if you’re lucky, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
This thing happens a lot (and I’m not talking about the Holy Virgin), especially now that the government has been trying to crack down on the cartels. The kidnappings are used to settle a score or to recoup lost revenue. That’s because if a shipment is intercepted, everyone associated with it becomes a suspected informant and a lot of heads roll, evidence or no evidence. Thank you, Presidente Calderon. Asshole.
According to some statistics, 90% of all kidnappings go unreported. I don’t know how accurate this is, but I can tell you that in Monterrey we used to have like ten levantons a day, all of which never made it to the police.
Almost every levanton is linked to organized crime, but not every victim is related to the trade. Some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time…hanging with the wrong company. See, you should’ve listened to mom and dad when they told you not to play with Chuy.
And yes, I’ve had some of these things happen to people around me. Around here, everybody does. I’ve had people close to me who where kidnapped and came back, and have others that didn’t.
Just last week I was out for a drink with a friend of mine, let’s call him Ce, who was kidnapped not so long ago and held for 22 days. Three weeks and a day! The whole time, he wasn’t allowed to eat, he was handcuffed 24/7, stabbed in the leg, beaten in the face with the butt of a gun and — get this — in the end, they realized they got the wrong guy. But that didn’t seem to matter much.
We were out cruising around Monterrey on a Saturday night, sipping piña coladas at a place excellent for chasing rivos and weed. We were talking about the the local drug scene, about how los zetas own the night, successfully controlling drug sales inside clubs, bars, strip joints and street corners and, yes, tienditas too. And after a half-dozen girly drinks, Ce opened up about his experience like he never did before. A year had passed, I guess long enough for him to have some distance.
The levanton took place on an avenue close to his house. He was closed off by a black SUV with tinted windows. It crashed into the side of his car to make him pull over. He was grabbed by heavily armed masked men who pulled him into another SUV, and his car was also taken by one of the men.
He tells me that they were questioning him like they were certain of who he was, cursing him, threatening him, asking him about rifles. They broke his nose by continuously hitting him with the butt of an AR-15. Then he said he felt his leg get suddenly hot. I guess that’s what if feels like to be stabbed with a huge hunting knife.
The interrogations happened at some safe house and lasted a few days. He was continuously beaten with the tablazos I mentioned earlier, and also with bottles and other objects he couldn’t readily identify. He tells me he was kept hooded the whole time he was in captivity, and was never fed. Being week from starvation held a purpose, he says. It made kidnappees like him easier to handle when taking them to the bathroom or moving them around.
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