January 11, 2002

First Person


By Lisa (last name withheld by request)

(Editor's Note: Lisa came to La Prensa San Diego seeking a position as an intern; she wanted to learn how to become a news reporter. After completing one story, we didn't hear from her for a couple of weeks. When we did, Lisa informed us that her brother had been kidnapped! After making sure that her brother was okay, we asked her to share her brother's story with our readers.

At first, Lisa and her family were scared. They were afraid that the kidnappers might read the story; afraid that they might retaliate. Her brother didn't want to talk about the ordeal because it was too soon. A short time passed and Lisa tried writing the story, but it was hard for her. She tried a second time and this is the story of her family's ordeal.)

The burn marks on his chest from the iron will forever mark the torturous tragedy my brother Chava experienced.

Sunday morning at 10:30, just after Thanksgiving, I received a call from my sister Jeannie with the bad news. Chava, who had been missing for two days, had been kidnapped.

He was abducted Friday afternoon, the day after Thanksgiving, as he was leaving his restaurant in Tecate, Mexico, to run an errand. While stopped at a four-way stop sign, several twenty- and thirty-something men speedily opened his unlocked doors. While gasping for breath, he was shoved out of the driver's seat and taken. No one knows exactly where he was taken to, and the tape over his eyes prevented him from knowing, as well.

Like a scene from a movie, the first call came on Friday night when he explained what happened to his wife, Maria. "Do you recognize them?" Maria frantically asked. "No," Chava replied. "They want five-hundred thousand dollars. Just do what they say! Try to come up with as much as you can! Hablale al Huero y a los muchachos! Si no ya no me vas a volver a ver! Don't call the police!"

Several hours passed without contact. Maria left Tecate desperate! She drove the 45-minute ride back to San Diego powerless and distressed. What should she do? Who should she call? He told her not to call the police! What could the San Diego Police do in this situation, anyway? As the minutes passed, it became obvious to her that in Mexico there wasn't much that could be done to help her.

She woke Saturday morning to the same horror. She thought of a plan. Equipped with a tape recorder purchased at good old Radio Shack, she returned to Tecate. A message from her husband was waiting for her. She connected the tape recorder and waited for the next call. Confused and desperate, she repressed her emotions and held on to the thought of having her husband returned safely.

She had to call somebody; she couldn't do this alone. That morning she called the American and Mexican Consulates who assured her they would work with the FBI in trying to locate her husband. But because the FBI is a U.S. agency, the support they could offer was very limited and only available if Maria reported the incident to an organization called the Anti-Secuestreros. Being that he was a U.S. citizen, this was more help than most non-citizens would receive.

The Anti-Secuestreros is an organization which receives kidnapping negotiation training from the FBI. It offers counseling and negotiation strategies to victims of kidnappers. They are a separate entity from the Mexican Police Department and provide a sense of security to kidnap victim families.

Although the police in many parts of Mexico cannot be trusted, reporting the incident to them was unavoidable. Maria cautiously reported the kidnapping. It was Thanksgiving weekend, which made the situta-tion even more chaotic. During her calls for help, Maria was interrupted by another call from the kidnappers.

A kidnapper, himself, got on the phone to threaten her. He tore into her for keeping the line busy and warned her that they were watching her every move. He knew the cars she drove, and her residential and business addresses in Tecate. He knew she had called the American and Mexican Consulates. He knew every step she was taking. "Estamos bien informados. Y si no junta todo el dinero, Ud. nunca volverá a verlo."

"No, I was not calling any such place for your information!" she yelled at the kidnapper in Spanish. "I've been calling all my family trying to come up with the money you are demanding. It's been hard to get in touch with anyone since the date you picked to do this happens to be after an American holiday and everyone travels." With that the kidnapper passed the phone back to Chava. "Maòana te hablo al las 8:30." Before Chava hung up, Maria asked "Estas bien?" The phone went dead and her question was left unanswered.

Life went on like this for nine grueling days. It occassionally snows in Tecate and the cold weather added to our agonizing concerns about Chava's health. Eating made me feel guilty, and all I could think about was whether or not he was being fed. The never-ending terrorizing question remained: when were they going to let him go?

Occasionally, the Anti-Secuestreros would stop by to give Maria some advice about what to tell her husband who was passing the messages on to the kidnappers. None of the authorities were able to offer any real help. The calls she was getting were traced back to his cell phone, so it was difficult to identify their whereabouts.

Fighting back uncertainty and extreme anxiety, Maria thought of a plan. She would subscribe to caller I.D. to trace incoming calls and continue to try to raise a portion of the money.

As much as we were full of panic over his disappearance, the kidnappers were getting desperate about getting their "easy" money and releasing him. The kidnappers had gotten the news of a separate kidnapping, which police were closing in on in Tijuana. The separate kidnapping made them anxious to get their money and to release him. Out of their desperation, they called from a Tijuana pharmacy public phone and the number showed up on Maria's caller I.D. The police successfully traced it. On the sixth day Chava's car was located just a few blocks from his restaurant. But still, no word on where he was or whether or not he would come out alive.

Then Friday, exactly seven days after he was kidnapped, a call came to the restaurant indicating that he would be released. We waited and waited for what seemed like an eternity and heard no word. Saturday passed, nothing. I couldn't help but start to give up hope. "Maybe he is dead," I started to think.

I tried to hide my emotions and keep our mother busy. I didn't want her to know my real thoughts and definitely didn't want those thoughts to be contagious. Sunday was passing and I tried to keep her busy. We lit some candles, prayed to the Virgencita, and shared some wine. Then at exactly 8:00 p.m., they released him.

He had been blind-folded so tightly that his eyebrows were half-way gone, battered so viciously his head was broken open and two ribs had been broken. They dropped him off in a secluded area. The only thing they told him was that he was free to go because they had the wrong man. He managed to break himself free and call his wife to pick him up. No explanation was really needed, the main thing was that he was free.

Local authorities interrogated him. Chava shared with them the voices he heard, and the daily beatings and kicks, which ultimately resulted in several broken ribs. He described the safety pins poked into both earlobes as part of their torturous intimidations. A wicked game they would play by tying something to the safety pins and viciously pulling his earlobes away from his head. There were several of them, yet the exact number is unknown. The only thing they wanted was money.

He recalled how every day he thought he might die. One day, he recalled, they put some sort of bag over his head with a strong odor. He suspected it was poison and tried to hold his breath for as long as possible to avoid breathing too much of it. For several hours he was left unattended until he heard their voices again in another room. Apparently they came back to see if he was still alive.

"He is not the one," he heard them say from a distance. "This is not the guy I told you to get." They came into the room and took the bag off of his head and told him, "You are a lucky man. You were almost number 26." Later that day he was set free.

Three days after sharing his story with the Mexican authorities, his case was closed and the kidnappers got away free. Who they were or why they were driven to commit such horrific acts is still unknown. But what is true is that kidnappings continue to happen on both sides of the border to people of all races, sexes, ages and citizenship.

After talking to my brother Chava about what happened, I asked him why they would do something like this to him. Why did they pick him? His opinion is that many people from Tecate think that people who come from "the other side" are rich with credit cards, friends with money, and a means to get lots of U.S. dollars. Seeing him as an owner of two businesses in Tecate, driving nice American cars, and owning semi-successful businesses is a lot more than people from down South have. Even though in the U.S. he is still considered to be relatively lower middle-class, in Mexico, his class is upgraded. Due to the easily misinterpreted view of people from the other side, one can't help but to ask: What will you do if it happens to you?

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