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Analysis: 'Virtual kidnap' of Chilean journalist draws renewed attention to notorious extortion scheme

Analysis: 'Virtual kidnap' of Chilean journalist draws renewed attention to notorious extortion scheme

The statement by Chilean journalist Mónica González on Monday 8 August, that she was recently the victim of an abduction scheme in Mexico has again raised concerns over what has become a lucrative industry in the country.

González, the Director of the Chilean Centre of Journalistic Investigation and Information (CIPER), shared on national television that was staying with her granddaughter in a hotel in Chiapas state in July on a two-week vacation. An unknown perpetrator, who initially claimed to be with the police, called her from reception late at night and asked her a series of personal questions. When González began to question the man's identity, he then confined her to her hotel room under threat of violence and demanded ransom from her relatives abroad. Although the man identified himself as a member of the Zetas Cartel, it is unclear if that assertion was indeed true.

González stated that she, along with her granddaughter, were eventually ordered by the perpetrator via hotel phone to move to another hotel, a directive with which she complied. González reportedly stayed at the second hotel for three days, receiving only basic food and water and remaining incommunicado. Her account indicates that her mobile phone was "hacked", and she did not attempt any other form of communication with the outside world due to the threats made against both her and her granddaughter. However, after two days, the women chose to leave the hotel and return to their original hotel, regardless of the consequences. Subsequent to their return, police arrived at the hotel, having apparently been alerted of Gonzalez’s abduction by the Mexican government - her relatives in France had notified authorities of the ongoing situation through the Mexican Embassy in Paris, as the purported abductors had contacted her relatives for ransom. González and her granddaughter then left the country, escorted by security forces and met at the airport by the ambassadors from both Chile and France.

As González is seen as a highly credible person within Chile and was previously kidnapped during that country's dictatorship, her story so far has been taken at face value and corroborated by the Chilean ambassador, who has claimed that it is the first case he knows of in which a Chilean citizen was held captive in Mexico for ransom.

However, the case does not appear to be a classic "virtual kidnapping" in which relatives are contacted and misled into thinking that a family member is being held for ransom, as González was indeed being coerced into a form of house arrest. The scheme which entrapped González, in which both the victim and relatives elsewhere have at least phone contact with the perpetrators, is a more complicated variant of the more standard virtual kidnapping play-by-play. What is uncertain from González's account is whether the threat of violence was a bluff or if the perpetrators truly were prepared to harm the women, as González returned to her original hotel without incident. It is also entirely possible, even probable, that the entire scheme was something concocted by local criminal elements completely unassociated with the Zetas, and González has further stated that authorities are investigating possible criminal links to individuals based in Chile who may have leaked her whereabouts in Chiapas.

González's case however is particularly disturbing in that it highlights the power of the mere threat of violence in a country like Mexico, where such threats are, by default, considered credible. This context accentuates the vulnerability of high-profile or otherwise seemingly wealthy individuals in the face of extortion networks of local criminals. Such criminals often collude with local police forces, who are viewed as far more prone to corruption than state and particularly federal security personnel.

The number of virtual kidnappings perpetrated by criminal elements is reported to have increased considerably over the past decade, with the increase estimated to be as high as 600 per cent. Because many attempts go unreported by potential victims who recognise the scam, there are no verifiable numbers for exactly how common these incidents are. However, with the advent of social media, through which personal information is far more readily available, such scams are expected to continue and, as González's incident demonstrates, can affect travellers of any nationality.

Due to the nature of virtual kidnapping, perpetrators are also targeting a much broader make-up of victim, often asking for smaller financial amounts in order to ‘finalise’ the transaction before suspicions are raised.

  


 

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