MEXICO CITY (AP) — It started to rain last Saturday night and the temperature dropped. So 19-year-old Said Sanchez Garcia stopped home to get a sweater. He’d been gone all afternoon and now he and his friend, Jerzy Ortiz, 16, were headed out clubbing on Jerzy’s motor scooter.
“The only thing I said was, ‘Son, it’s raining, you shouldn’t be going out,’” said Josefina Garcia. It was the last time she saw him.
By late Sunday she was calling Jerzy’s mother, Leticia Ponce, to see if she knew where the boys were. By Tuesday, both mothers were at the Mexico City prosecutor’s office with other distraught relatives. The boys disappeared from an after-hours bar in central Mexico City on Sunday morning along with nine others, kidnapped by masked men with large guns and SUVs in broad daylight, according to the story of one man who got away.
Nearly a week later, the two mothers found themselves denying that the brazen abduction had anything to do with their sons.
Both acknowledged that the boys’ fathers are serving prison sentences for drug-related crimes. But Ponce tearfully pleaded with reporters on Friday not to criminalize her son, Jerzy. His father has been in jail for 10 years.
“If somebody wanted to do something to us, they would have already kidnapped us,” said Ponce, shaking with sobs.
Authorities have been searching desperately for motives in the bizarre crime that left no clues. It followed the May 9 beating death of Malcolm Shabazz, grandson of the late Malcolm X, in a fight over a bill at another rough Mexico City bar. Two waiters have been arrested in that killing.
After scouring available surveillance tapes in the kidnapping and searching the bar, Mexico City Attorney General Rodolfo Rios said Saturday that so far they so far have found no evidence that a heavily armed command abducted the young people.
“We have found no signs of violence inside or outside the place,” he told a press conference.
Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said authorities were not eliminating any line of investigation but could not act on assumptions because of some of the victims’ fathers. When asked if the city could be facing an increase in organized crime attacks, he said “Mexico City has its security guaranteed.”
The family members have met with city and federal prosecutors, and have demanded to see tapes from the office buildings that tower over the narrow side street just off the city’s leafy Paseo de la Reforma. The bar is also a short walk from the federal police building and the U.S. Embassy.
Employees in nearby businesses say they had noticed for some time strange activity and loud music at the building with the sign Bicentenario, some calling it a narco-bar for the expensive cars that came and went. Several said they would cross the street to work to avoid the drunks who would hang out on the sidewalk, still partying in the early morning. The after-hours club, called “Heaven,” had been operating for about a year, neighbors estimated.
It was running with a different name than the one listed on a license that expired in 2009 and was never renewed. Still, it stayed open. Humberto Huerta, a spokesman for the city borough office that is responsible for inspecting bars and other businesses, noted his office only has 16 inspectors to oversee 60,000 businesses.
But no one saw anything Sunday around 10 a.m. when the abduction supposedly happened, nearly unbelievable given that nearby Reforma was full of people that day — for a 5-kilometer foot race, the city’s weekly urban bike ride and an international culture fair that had just opened the day before.
Amid the lack of an explanation, speculation emerged that it was a retaliation crime relating to the fathers of the two boys.
The spokesman for the city’s penitentiary system said Sanchez’s father, Alejandro Sanchez, was sentenced in October 2004 to 23 years in prison for extortion, organized crime, homicide and robbery. He is serving time in a maximum security prison in the city.
Jerzy’s father Jorge Ortiz, known as “the Tank,” was arrested the same day as Sanchez and was sentenced to the same crimes and for the same number of years. He was transferred to a federal maximum security prison in 2009 because he is considered a high-risk criminal.
“My husband has been locked up for many years,” Garcia said. “He doesn’t have any problems with anybody, he doesn’t mess with anybody. So that would be a long time for that to keep having consequences, right?”
Others accused authorities of stigmatizing the kidnap victims because they hail from Tepito, one of Mexico City’s most dangerous neighborhoods and the main clearinghouse for millions of dollars of contraband, from guns and drugs to counterfeit handbags.
In the winding, narrow streets of the 150-block area, stalls selling knock-off sneakers and pirated CDs block access for most cars. Youths ride motorbikes, often two to a bike, as the main form of transport. Garbage is piled on street corners, and warehouses full of auto parts of dubious origin spill their contents.
Alma, a 21-year-old student who didn’t want to give her last name, said it’s common to see kids as young as 10 hanging out on the streets at all hours of the night, and noted that their role models are the men with flashy motorcycles and cars and no visible means of income.
Rumors also spread that the abductions might be the result of one of Mexico’s major drug cartels trying to break into the lucrative black market of Tepito, traditionally controlled by local mafias and families.
Officials have said that Mexico’s major drug cartels sometimes move money or drugs through Mexico City, but don’t really base themselves or operate from the capital, in part because the crowded streets and 70,000-member police force make it hard to do business. As a result, the city until now has been largely spared from the mass abductions and killings going on in other parts of Mexico, where the cartels are at war.
But street crime is bad in Tepito, where strangers can’t enter without local guides for fear of being robbed. Local businessmen now fund a 17-member security force made up largely of tattooed ex-cons, who patrol the streets looking for thieves. Once caught, suspects are turned over to police.
Miguel Barcenas, an imposing ex-cop dressed in black, heads the force, which is armed only with radios. He said he’s heard rumors about cartels such as La Familia Michoacana or the Zetas coming in, but he thinks Tepito is probably too tough even for them.
“The people here are very united, very war-like,” Barcenas said.
Family members deny that the disappeared were involved in any illicit trade.
Garcia said her son helped her sell purses and cleaning products. Another of the disappeared, Jennifer Robles, 23, was a single mother. She posted a message on Facebook about 8:30 a.m. Sunday, just before she disappeared, saying she was dancing.
Associated Press writer Olga R. Rodriguez contributed to this report.