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Dispatch / The Mexican Drug War / February 3, 2009
By Pancho Montana

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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  • 1. mudlark  |  February 3rd, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    OK… sorry to expose my gringo ignorance here, but what has Ce done for *revenge* since his ordeal?

    Even if he can’t locate one of the specific individuals involved in his kidnapping, couldn’t he find a surrogate and exact his revenge on them? An unrelated kidnapper, a random narco cop, there have to be plenty of candidates.

    I’m not talking about taking any internet-tough-guy action here, no confrontation or nothing. Just pick your target-of-revenge and murderize ’em in the most cowardly, safe way you can find, and be sure to leave a (very anonymous) note on the body so people know why it had to happen.

    I just can’t understand how a person can go through this sort of ordeal without seeking revenge. Clearly SOMEONE has to die, even if it’s just the nephew of one of the guys that did the beating. It seems weird that Mexicans would be so psychologically alien from the rest of the masculine world in this respect.

  • 2. mx?  |  February 4th, 2009 at 4:35 am

    no revenge, it was business as usual.
    You have to understand that we see kidnappings as a part of the life, you cant hold a grudge because maybe next time youll be at the other side of the table, so to speak.
    So Ce dindt get revenge per se, but in Mexico its just a matter of time before justice is served, everyone that deserves it gets it, its a cycle, if soldiers dont capture him and throw him into the middle of the ocean then he would surely get it while shootin it out with a rival cell or maybe he becomes a levantado himself and if you have seen youtube you know they give them their 15 minutes.
    Revenge? No, time and trade will take care of it, its very possible that half the people involved are dead and the rest in prison.

  • 3. mx?  |  February 4th, 2009 at 4:38 am

    revenge is personal, this was business, its got nothing to do with “masculinity”.
    If you are doing illegal activities you have to expect consequences, right?
    you gringos expect being taken by cops, here we expect masked vatos instead of boys in blue.
    its a matter of culture, Mexico is not the US.

  • 4. zip  |  February 4th, 2009 at 6:04 am

    Revenge, dude you need to stop watching all those fake action flicks. He got out in one piece, and he’s out smoking weed and banging chicks, so what’s to expect, this guy and some buddies going AK and frags against dudes affiliated with a drug cartel? for what? to get dissolved on acid some weeks later? That survival out there, personal revenge is for lame flicks, Chechen’s (the few still alive that is) and other rustics.

  • 5. Scandinavian dude  |  February 4th, 2009 at 6:15 am

    Disgusting. You sure are a bunch of monkeys down there. We don’t have apeman stuff like that here in the Scandinavian countries.

  • 6. Tinner  |  February 4th, 2009 at 8:24 am

    “Scandinavian dude”: fjöl av din sillmjölke och sluta bete dig some en ITT

    Second: the trick I guess is to avoid the bigger cities from someone like me that just wants to have some drinks and women.
    But yeah I doubt someone that lives there has much of a choice.

    Great article btw, a bit dry but the concise content is what I like.

  • 7. aleke  |  February 4th, 2009 at 8:38 am

    No, Scandinavian life is boring and safe for the present time.

  • 8. aleke  |  February 4th, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Anyway, you guys must have not read Dolan’s pain article in the old Exile. You would know all pain is personal. It’s usually not ‘just business’ for our nervous system.

  • 9. Mario  |  February 4th, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    if in Mexico the police is so fucked up, why the government don’t just put it out and estabilish martial law ?

  • 10. TL  |  February 4th, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Of course you don’t ‘Scandinavian dude’

    What you have is deranged sociopaths that would push a girl in front of a moving bus. Which is exactly what happened a while ago in the city I live in here in Sweden.

    Why would anybody do that in such a nice environment is beyond me but there you have it.

  • 11. Baked Dr. Luny  |  February 4th, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Hey Scandinavian dude, did you ever hear of the vikings? People are the same everywhere, some are just lucky enough to be in a situation where they don’t have to deal with much violence.

    @Mario: If they got rid of the police and declared martial law it would be the army that gets corrupted, it already is to some extent. Would you rather have a police force in collusion with the cartels or an army in their pocket?

  • 12. mx?  |  February 4th, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    exactly zip…just what I wanted to get through
    you get kidnapped..shits thats life, move on

  • 13. mx?  |  February 4th, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    and some goverment officials are colluded too, but for the most part they are happy to let the narcos to their bizness while they skim off the top of city projects or make up stupid “bonuses” for themselves.

    Im serious, you see it all the time on the news, how legislators decide to pass law which increase the pay and benefits of their profession, fuck Id like a job where I decide when to raise my pay and give myself luxury cars and SUVs, only for official use of course.

  • 14. Pedro  |  February 4th, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Brilliant writing. Loved your 1st article and this was just as good. Keep it up with more on the drug wars and their fallout. In live in Australia and this stuff is like reading about another planet.

  • 15. mx?  |  February 4th, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    and scandinavian dude: you treat your own kids like sex slaves.

    I rest my case

  • 16. Pancho  |  February 4th, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Keep in mind this isn’t representative of ALL Mexico. Monterrey is an enormous metropolitan area, about a quarter the size of DF. It’s also NEAR the border, and the drug routes heat up near the US borders. The narcos don’t fuck people up EVERYWHERE. My friends in Mexico range from dirt poor to low middle class and the whole drug war thing doesn’t concern them an awful lot (Queretaro), although they do have RANDOM violent events to cheer them up, occasionally.

  • 17. Anonymous  |  February 4th, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    What’re “rivos”? Drinks?

  • 18. mx?  |  February 4th, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    rivotril are pills, not as good as rohypnol though.

  • 19. fajensen  |  February 5th, 2009 at 8:19 am

    @Scandinavian dude:

    Disgusting. You sure are a bunch of monkeys down there. We don’t have apeman stuff like that here in the Scandinavian countries

    Not until recently anyway we did not!

    Thanks to generous welfare programmes we are now blessed with places like Rinkeby (Stockholm), Rosengården (Malmø) and Vesterbro (Copenhagen) to make us feel much more 3rd-world’ish.

  • 20. Anon  |  February 7th, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    I guess we just aren’t as civilized as scandinavians until we get out very own school shooting!

    Living in the same city as the author, I got to see someone getting picked up. It was quick, in broad daylight and nobody really “noticed”.

  • 21. Skööby Döö  |  February 8th, 2009 at 8:34 am

    Man, there sure are a lot of fucking Swedes here. There goes the neighborhood.

  • 22. Seya  |  July 27th, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Spent two weeks in Laredo about 5 years ago doing Ketamine and sleeping in motels. I look back now and wonder what the hell was I thinking. Young and stupid..not realizing the danger I was in. I love your stories.

  • 23. mario  |  September 1st, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    wow! great story and sad

  • 24. Andie  |  February 20th, 2010 at 8:29 am

    I never knew it was so commonplace, but I am glad I learned something today. Good read.

  • 25. Sierra  |  April 2nd, 2010 at 6:11 am

    Why the animosity towards President Calderon?

  • 26. NZ  |  June 10th, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    From New Zealand and found this story sad and interesting. Like a train wreck, I couldn’t take my eyes away.

    We only get a small glimpse of drug related violence. Christ, I guess its only a matter of time though.

  • 27. flot  |  August 24th, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    Wow, amazing that you think it dehumanizes your victims to torture them. The truth is it dehumanizes you sadistic low lifes 4 fold! the innocent lives you torure are better people than you. It doesn’t matter if they cry for mercy or you make them eat their own dick while fucking their wife, they are still better than you and you know it! You get off torturing them but it doesn’t sustain you as you know that you are a sack of shit for what you have become. I only wish American justice could allow toruture speciffically as a capital punishment for those who torture! it’s what you deserve and its the only justice. A slow running asphault roller slowly crushing all the bones in your coward cartel ass you dumb faggot! It won’t be long and Scandanavian/Americans will go vigillante style on your asses and drag you all behind our trucks you pussified sacks of shit!

  • 28. Peter Piper  |  September 10th, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    WOW! What the hell is up with that last guy who posted a comment? He addresses his comments directly to the kidnappers? Does he actually believe this is some kind of forum where the kidnappers hang out and he’s able to speak directly to the kidnappers here?? As if kidnappers hang out in online forums on their days off.


  • 29. Peter Piper  |  September 10th, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    By the way, Pancho, if you’re reading this, I just wanted to say that was an excellent piece of journalism there. Very dryly written. Funny, sobering, and informative, all at the same time. You definitely have a knack for this.

  • 30. MARCO  |  December 22nd, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Watch it! Ya andan tras la comunidad del Telemarketing en Monterrey…

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