By Paul Heller
January 19, 2020, my world view was, at least temporarily, turned upside down. I was the victim of an express kidnapping in Puebla, Mexico.
Before the kidnapping, I always felt safe traveling. Now I feel like I must be hypervigilant. I have always loved the freedom to explore new places. Now I realize that the gift to explore freely is fragile. Anyone can take away the right randomly.
However, while I doubt, I will ever forget the kidnapping, I know, over time, I will feel safe again.
Why I Hesitate to Write this Blog Post
I struggled a long time before I decided to post this blog. I want to encourage nomads to live their dreams and travel and live outside of the US and Canada.
We tend to think that the world is scarier than it is. Stories, like mine, contribute to the sense of insecurity.
Tourism is a vital part of the Mexican economy. Any bad news, no matter how relatively small, affects the economic well-being of thousands of people. These people are as much if not more victims of crime than I was.
That said, I want this website to reflect the realities, both good and bad, of a nomadic lifestyle; therefore, I feel obliged to report things as they are. Bad things can and do happen, even to someone as experienced as me. I also hope that my post will save Fifty-Plus Nomads from being victims of express kidnappings and other possibly avoidable crimes.
In fact, until a couple of weeks ago, I pooh-poohed a lot of the warnings about traveling in Mexico. I have visited 27 of the 31 states and spent over a year just traveling around Mexico. Two days before I was express kidnapped, my step-uncle even wrote me an email where he said; ¨For God’s sake, be careful driving around Mexico. We read about Cartel Insanity almost every week¨. My reply ¨I am taking buses, Ubers, and taxis around Mexico. They are convenient, comfortable, inexpensive, and safe¨.
While I intend to keep traveling around and living in Mexico, I am much more cautious than when I replied to my step-uncle’s email. I realize that I had a lapse in judgment and probably could have avoided problems by just being more careful.
What is an Express Kidnapping?
Express kidnappings have occurred in Mexico for the last couple of decades. (Note they are also common in some other Latin American countries).
Express kidnappings occur when someone hails what appears to be a legitimate taxi cab and instead finds that the taxi driver is a criminal who forces you to withdraw cash from an ATM. The driver may also steal your valuables. Sometimes, they’ll call your family and ask for a ransom payment.
Usually, these criminals let their victims go after a trip to the cash machine.
Beginning around 2006, Mexican criminal groups used express kidnappings to help fund their activities, according to Víctor Manuel Sánchez Valdés “Criminal groups earn less per victim but can carry out many more kidnappings without attracting the attention of the authorities¨.
Express kidnappings made up 66 percent of all kidnapping crimes in 2016, according to the National Institute for Statistics and Geography in Mexico. Between January and March 2018, 400 kidnappings occurred.
The Mexican government has been mostly unsuccessful in their efforts to reduce kidnapping. Police are sometimes involved in the abductions. Only “1 percent of all kidnappers are captured and carried to justice,” said Torres Landa, the Mexico United Against Organized Crime consultant. “There is a huge incentive to participate in these activities.”
I arrived in Puebla on a Friday evening, January 17, 2020, and was express kidnapped just two days later. It was the third time I visited the city — the first time in 1986 and the second in 2012. In 2012, I had heard that Puebla was one of Mexico’s safest cities, but did not realize how much had changed in the intervening seven or so years.
I called for a cab from a friend’s hotel in the central city of Puebla to go to the apartment where I was staying. I had taken the same route twice before in an Uber without a problem.
On the night when I was express kidnapped, I tried to call for an Uber, and no one came after a couple of tries.
I saw a taxi that looked to be legitimate and got into the cab. (Black and yellow like many others in the city). I do not remember anything about the taxi driver. The taxi cab driver took me about four or five blocks. He stopped. I thought he stopped to make sure that he was going the right way. (This has happened to me frequently before. I have been in hundreds if not thousands of taxis and Ubers in Mexico).
Instead, three men entered the cab in a matter of what seemed like less than a minute. I was in the back seat. Two of the men got in the back seat and pushed me down into the middle seat for the entire ride. Another man entered and sat in the passenger’s front seat. (I think he made the subsequent ATM withdrawals). I do not know if they were armed.
At first, I tried to resist as the two men pulled me down and applied pressure onto my arms so I could not move quickly. I received a couple of bruises on my hand (which was also briefly swollen) and legs before I realized that I should comply and stop trying to escape.
Within what seemed like less than a minute, the criminals put a baseball cap over my face and took my glasses, watch, wallet, and phone. They also took all my cash-, probably around 1500 pesos or $75. (In the future, I will take fewer cards with me and leave one or two cards and some cash behind in my hotel room). I did not see their faces.
The criminals asked me if I was a tourist, and I replied yes. They assured me that in that case, they would release me after they got some money and did not want to do me any physical damage. They demanded that I give them my pin code for my phone, my ATM card, and three credit cards. I complied and noted that I did not know the PIN from my credit cards. I do not know what they looked at on my phone. They seemed to talk to someone on the phone who was supervising the kidnapping.
The criminals drove around rather slowly. They appeared to stop several times. Approximately an hour and a quarter after they entered the car, I think they withdrew money from my ATM card. (Note: The criminals could have made the withdrawals after they released me; but, I doubt it).
Surprisingly, they returned my wallet, including my driver’s license and health insurance card. I think I heard the criminals say that everything went well and discussing where they could get a vehicle repaired with the money they took. They appeared to release me about ten to twenty minutes after they made the withdrawals.
I know that, according to my bank records, the criminals made eight withdrawals from my account over only seven minutes all from the same bank branch. The total of these withdrawals was nearly $1500 US.
I was surprised that they were able to make so many withdrawals so quickly. I had tried to make multiple withdrawals a couple of times to pay for work around my home and could not take more than 15000 pesos or $750 in one day. The thieves may have been able to take two days worth of withdrawals because the withdrawals occurred around midnight.
After about an hour and a half – without a watch, it is hard to know, for sure- I was released. When the criminals released me, they pushed me about a block with the cap over my eyes. Then they took off the hat and told me not to look back, or they would kill me.
They said another car would arrive to take me to my hotel and may have told me to go a block and then turn left to get the car. But to be honest, I am not sure. The whole conversation took place in Spanish, and though as a whole, I am reasonably conversant in Spanish, I may have been confused.
I walked up about four or five blocks and came to a busy street. I waited for a car for about ten minutes, and finally, thought to myself: ¨Why would I want to get into another of the criminals’ vehicles?¨ Shellshocked, I continued to walk down the street, trying to decide what to do.
When I got to an intersection, I looked for a car stopped at a stoplight with friendly-looking people inside. The fear on my face must have been obvious because as I approached a vehicle, the driver rolled down the window and talked to me. I explained the situation.
The driver told me that he would call the police. He promised me that he would wait with me. The driver then told me that, unfortunately, this type of thing had started happening in Puebla a year or so before particularly in Central City. I remember frequently saying thanks and trying to make sure that he and his family were safe. He and his family stayed as promised until about ten minutes later, the police arrived.
I decided to have the police take me back to the hotel where my friend, Ann, was staying. I knew that I could ask her for some money, use her phone to cancel my credit cards, phone, ATM card, etc, and, most importantly, did not want to be alone.
Along the way to Ann’s hotel, the police took me to the apartment where I was staying. I got my baggage and returned to Ann’s hotel. (Thankfully I had my laptop at the hotel, which helped me to get all the information I needed for my later calls to banks, etc.).
At the hotel, the police took a report, and the desk clerk called Ann. (By this time, it was around 2 am). I told Ann that I was express kidnapped and that I needed help. I stayed in her hotel for the rest of my stay. Even though there was a guard in the apartment complex where I was staying, I could not muster the courage to go back to the apartment.
The Next Steps
I used Ann’s phone to cancel all my cards, phone, etc. I was surprised how bureaucratic and baffled all the people I talked to on the phone were. Only the agent at the bank where the criminals used my ATM card even understand what happened.
Ann called a mutual friend, Beth, the next day. Beth mentioned that maybe the hotel had a video of me entering the cab. To my surprise, they did have a video. I do not know if they could get much information from the video. The hotel manager told me that these kidnappings did not happen much in the central city and that I should make a formal denuncia, an official report to the prosecutor’s office, called a fiscal in Spanish.
Two days later, I went to the prosecutor’s office and made the denuncia. I told them that the hotel had a video of my entering the taxi and gave them information from the bank of the withdrawals made. A prosecutor interviewed me in Spanish for about an hour and a half and gave me a copy of their report. I do not know if it will mean anything in the long run, but I am still glad I made the report. The prosecutor told me that the kidnappings were quite common in the Central City.
For a couple of days, I thought about going back to Merida. But, my house was rented until my scheduled return six weeks later. After some reflection, I decided that I needed to keep traveling as I had planned before. I had made a bunch of arrangements that were likely non-refundable. Perhaps, more importantly, I realized that I would be better off psychologically not caving into my fears. I stayed with Ann until my scheduled leave for Puerto Vallarta five days later.
It has not taken too long to get my economic life back in order. The bank credited my account for the withdrawals. Over the next two weeks, I got new credit cards and ATM cards. I bought a new watch and phone. I will get new glasses when I return to Merida in March.
Now the most prominent scar left is emotional. I sense that the kidnapping will leave psychological scars for awhile. I expect that these scars will change and heal over time.
Be careful before getting a taxi off the street, particularly at night.
I should have either waited for an Uber, taken a cab at a sitio (stand), or asked the hotel to call me a cab. If I had been at an airport or a bus station, the best option, if available, is to buy a ticket from an authorized taxi service kiosk before getting a taxi. If you must enter a cab alone off the street, experts advise that you ask the driver for his license, take a picture, and send a copy of the photo to a friend electronically. The goal of all these tactics is to make sure that the driver is easily traceable and will not want to jeopardize their relationship with the hotel, taxi company, or Uber.
It is Difficult to Know If a Place is Safe
You can’t tell if a place is safe or not, easily by doing on-line research ahead of time.
Almost all the websites that I checked before going to Puebla suggested that Puebla is a very safe city, including:
- Smarter Traveler lists Puebla as one of Mexico’s 13 safest places
- The US Department of State’s Travel Warnings assigns Puebla the lowest warning level in Mexico—Level 2; Exercise Increased Caution.
- One Spanish Language School in Puebla—the Spanish Institute- maintains safety is almost non-existent as a problem for international students in Puebla.
I Didn’t Have a Very Accurate Idea of Safety in Mexico Before the Kidnapping
Until the kidnapping anytime someone asked me about safety in Mexico, I would say without hesitation that most of Mexico is safe for tourists.
I took street cabs hundreds of times in Mexico without any problems. Many taxis even went out of their way to make sure that I got to where I needed safely.
Yet, just one terrifying taxi ride made me question all my previous beliefs. Nowadays, when I get the question, I respond that while I have overall been safe in Mexico, bad things can happen if you are not careful, and later tell people about my kidnapping.
I always used to point out the following information when asked about safety in Mexico:
- Most crime in Mexico is near the border and in a few crime hotspots like Acapulco and Culiacan
- Kidnappings only happen to rich people who are worth the time and expense to take hostage.
- Criminals try to avoid doing anything to tourists. Tourists cause too much wrong publicity, which leads to too much heat from authorities.
- The homicide rate in the US in 1990 was only 50% less than the murder rate in Mexico in 2018. (Today it is six times more in Mexico than in the US).
After the kidnapping, I learned that this information was incorrect because:
- The kidnapping took place away from the border or a crime hotspot.
- Nowadays, the victims of express kidnappings are middle-class Mexicans.
- I have never seen much news coverage of tourists who were express kidnapped. I am not sure if that is because it is rare or it is not of interest to the news media.
One of the Best Ways to Know if a City is Safe is From Locals.
Even before they knew I was kidnapped, a young woman in Puebla seemed concerned about our safety when Ann and I tried to get money from Western Union, After the withdrawal, she and her boyfriend even drove us back to our hotel.
Interestingly, if I had done more research on safety in Puebla, I would have found the following article in Mexico News Daily. (Mexico News Daily is an excellent place for up to date safety information). The article originally published in El Universal, one of Mexico’s major newspapers, is entitled ¨Puebla; The Country’s Most Insecure City¨.
According to the article, 92.7 percent of interviewees in Puebla were afraid of being a victim of crime. The highest percentage of any city in Mexico. Even more alarmingly, in 52 percent of the households, at least one member of their family was a crime victim. (Thankfully, only 19% of people interviewed in Merida, the City where I live, were afraid of crime. Merida reported the lowest level of fear of any major city in Mexico).
Some Surprising Psychological Lessons From the Kidnapping
For the First Time in Many Years, I am Genuinely Looking Forward to Going Home.
In the past, I had mixed feelings when I returned home after a long trip. (Note: In total, I have been away from my home in Merida for two and a half months). While I usually was glad to go home, I also wanted to keep traveling. While I have had some good experiences in the month after my kidnapping (and do not regret my decision to keep traveling), I do not feel that way now.
I do not have the same adventurous, carefree spirit as before. I am sure the spirit will return, but for now, I will feel more relaxed when I am in familiar surroundings.
When I went from Puerto Vallarta to Chapala, I dreaded taking a cab from the Guadalajara bus station to Chapala. Before I entered the taxi, I asked the driver from his certificate. He showed it to me and said that I could take a photo and email it to a friend if it made me feel more comfortable. When we arrived in Chapala, the taxi cab driver drove around the city to make sure that he took me to the right place. When we arrived at my apartment, the driver got out of the taxi and waited until I was confident that this was the right place. Most of the drivers in similar situations provided similar service.
While it helped to make me feel safe, I felt uncomfortable asking for the driver’s credentials. I felt like the express kidnappers took away an important reason why I love Mexico—trust in the kindness of everyday people like the taxi driver.
I Do Not Know What I Would Have Done if Ann Had Not Been There with Me.
While usually, I am glad to travel alone, I am not sure how I would have coped with the kidnapping if I was alone. It would have been harder without Ann’s help with a loan and the use of a phone. But, more important, I felt extremely uncomfortable being alone in Puebla.
I did everything with her until Ann went back to Merida five days later. Without Ann, I may have decided to either go back to Merida or the US or Canada. (I probably would have needed to get permission to leave Mexico because I am renewing my residency card).
When Ann told me she wanted to come to Puebla, I was a little hesitant. I usually travel alone and knew that she had never visited Mexico by herself. (She always traveled with her husband). Afraid that I would spend all my time taking care of her, I told her—ironic, huh?– that I wanted to make sure that I was free to do stuff on my own. I had already decided on a list of activities that I wanted to do in Puebla and wasn’t sure she would want to do the same stuff.
Now I regret my hesitation to travel with her. I was selfish. She is my friend, and as such, I should have been willing to do whatever is necessary to make her stay enjoyable.
I am also not sure if I would have made the denuncia if Ann were not there. I was afraid that the criminals might be watching me and would inflict damage if I reported the crime. Doing the denuncia helped me feel less like a victim. I did something, though small, to fight back. (Writing and posting this blog post has a similar effect as making the denuncia).
I Feel More Committed to Living in Merida than I Did Before the Kidnapping.
The kidnapping forced me to take a hard look at all the experiences I have had in Mexico throughout my life. I realize that Mexico is vital to me. I could write a long story just listing all the times that Mexicans have gone out of their way to help me. Most of the issues that I discuss in my blog: Why I Decided to Live in Merida, Mexico, seem much smaller than they did before the kidnapping. Now, I want to do my best to adjust to my life in Mexico and Merida.
I May Not Be the Only Victim of this Crime
I have seen what bad publicity can do to a city firsthand and do not want to make people stop visiting Puebla. That said, I want to encourage visitors to be more careful than I was.
Before I went to Puebla, I attended a two-week course at CILAC Freire Spanish school in Cuernavaca. I took a two-week course at the same school in 2005. The school has maintained a high quality of instruction, dedicated staff, and a unique curriculum dedicated to social justice. (In 2005, the school’s name was CETLALIC).
I am sad to report, however, that CILAC does not have anywhere near the number of students as it did fifteen years ago. Fifteen years ago, Cuernavaca was the center of Spanish language schools in Mexico. (In addition to CILAC, I took an outstanding course in Mexican Herbal Medicine in Temixco. a suburb of Cuernavaca). There were over twenty schools in Cuernavaca. Today there are only eight. And if CILAC Freire is an indication, even these eight programs have many fewer students than previously.
There are fewer students and schools because Morelos state (where Cuernavaca is located) is on the US State Department’s Travel Advisory as a Level 3 destination. Level 3 means Reconsider travel due to crime. Violent crime and gang activity are common. Until this designation, universities in the US and Canada sent hundreds of students to Cuernavaca to study the language and Mexican culture. Yet, today, these schools out of fear have stopped sending students. (Ironically, I think many of these schools are now sending students to Puebla).
I felt very safe during my stay at CILAC. The school’s staff and my homestay were, as usual in Mexico, extremely concerned for my safety. Part of their goal is to teach students how to be comfortable and safe. The school kept me busy. I took taxis (some off the street) and Ubers between my homestay and school at least once a day easily. In researching safety in Cuernavaca. I did not see any indication of crimes against tourists. A local, long-time expat in Cuernavaca has posted a thoughtful post about why he does not agree with the State Department’s Safety assessment.
Sadly, these decisions affect the lives of many Cuernavacans. My homestay had been hosting students for thirty years. Until a few years ago, the host had a constant stream of students. Nowadays, she hosts five to six students a year for around 2-3 months a year. I imagine that she is one of the luckier host families. Probably most of the host families from 15 years ago in Cuernavaca no longer receive students.
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