Kidnapped!

An heiress vanishes.

“I’m sorry, sir, I can’t give any information.” Speaking from his Coronado Cays home, Miguel Crespo sounds tired and shaken. His wife, Georgina, was kidnapped over a month ago.

“All the family are concerned about this,” says Crespo, “but we are being completely silent. Nobody talks about anything. I think we’re going to begin to know things next week. Maybe next week, if you call us.”

Georgina Romero de Crespo is the 37-year-old heiress to the wealthy Tijuana-based Serrano family. Her grandfather was Colonel Carlos I. Serrano, sometime senator and a well-known landowner in the Tijuana area from the 1940s to the early ’70s.

Georgina and her husband Miguel Angel Crespo Huerta, and her brother-in-law José Larroque, own homes in Coronado Cays. Their names have appeared in the social pages of the Union-Tribune. Larroque, who is married to Cecilia Romero-Serrano, is managing partner of the Tijuana operation of Baker & McKenzie, the world’s largest law firm. Larroque helps run the cross-border think-tank, San Diego Dialogue. He is listed with Thomas Shoesmith as donor of $21,500 of Baker & McKenzie funds to the San Diego Dialogue. Georgina’s mother, Georgina Serrano de Romero, has also contributed heavily — $10,000 — to support the Dialogue on behalf of her company, Submetrópoli de Tijuana, according to San Diego Dialogue records.

The family’s members, in other words, are part of the cross-border elite. Which makes it strange that nobody is talking. Not the family, not police, and not the mainstream San Diego media.

“Why don’t you let me talk with the family and get back to you?” said a polite but firm José Larroque when asked for insight into the kidnapping. “Let me call them and see just what I can discuss. Because I’m sort of on the peripheral side of all of this. Is that okay?”

At press time, Mr. Larroque had not called back.

Sergio Riedel of the ministerial (state) police of Baja California recently confirmed that their kidnapping unit was “ordered not to touch the case.” It seems the federal authorities in Tijuana are officially handling it, but they too are taking a backseat while the family negotiates.

“We’re aware of the case because the family lives in Coronado” says Bill Gore, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in San Diego. “But we respect the will of the victim’s family. Whether or not they pay the money, whether they [agree to] tracking devices being placed in payoff money, we leave that decision to the family of the victims. It’s their call. That is a frequent problem in trying to investigate these types of investigations.”

“We hadn’t heard of it ’til you called,” says Coronado police investigator Elizabeth Hirsch, whose jurisdiction includes the Coronado Cays.

When kidnappers abducted Tijuana-based Sanyo executive Mamoru Konno in August 1996, there was worldwide media attention. Within ten days Konno’s kidnappers were paid $2 million and he had been released.

Two million dollars was probably the exception. Baja California state police say that in most cases $75,000, including cash, jewelry, and cars, has been enough to secure the release of loved ones.

Romero de Crespo’s circumstances are unique not only because she’s from a reputedly wealthy family, but also because she is the first female business executive in the area to be kidnapped.

On the other hand, she’s just another victim in Baja California’s latest crime wave. The kidnapping problem owes its rise to border prosperity. There were 29 kidnappings last year, most in Mexicali, according to Zeta. Consensus among law enforcement authorities is that kidnapping gangs from poorer Mexican states such as Guerrero, Sinaloa, and Nayarit are attracted to the border for easy pickings from the maquiladora-rich business community. They’re also attracted to the easy escape routes across the border into America.

Somewhere, Georgina Romero de Crespo may be alive, sitting in a room, waiting for a deal to be struck as she enters her second month of captivity.

This is what happened, according to Mexican reports and accounts in the Tijuana weekly newspaper Zeta.

She was “violently kidnapped” in Tijuana on the morning of Wednesday, February 24, from her office at the Florido Industrial Center on Boulevard Insurgentes. Witnesses told police that three armed men entered an area where Romero de Crespo was overseeing the development of the industrial park. They rounded up the engineers and executives accompanying her and made them lie down on the ground while they confiscated car keys, wallets, cell phones, beepers, and portable radios. The intruders then grabbed Georgina de Crespo and forced her to leave with them.

De Crespo’s grandfather was the creator of Mexico’s Dirección Federal de Seguridad (federal security agency), according to Jesús Blancornelas, publisher of Zeta. The colonel owned “El Florido” rancho situated on the free road to Tecate, now a major part of the lands being broken up for industrial use, including the area along Boulevard Insurgentes where de Crespo was abducted, land still owned by the family.

“As usually happens,” wrote Jesús Blancornelas in Zeta, “the municipal police arrived first at the scene of the abduction. They collected information and launched a search. They soon found an abandoned 1990 gray Ford Taurus with a California license plate, number 2UMR609, which witnesses confirmed was the vehicle used by the kidnappers.”

Police found the car at the bridge known as Boca de Arroyo, near the kidnapping location, leading them to believe that the perpetrators had made a study of their operation. This is where they changed vehicles and escaped.

“Then the state police arrived,” wrote Blancornelas, “and delegated some agents to following the abductors. But they were too late.”

Witnesses told police all the kidnappers were young. One wore pants spattered with cement and a belt with paint on it. All had guns witnesses identified as “long.”

A spokesman for Marco Antonio de la Fuente, the Procuraduria (attorney) General of the state, said they had no notice of negotiations or of rescue on the day after the crime.

The place from which Romero de Crespo was abducted is a favorable kidnapping locale, isolated and difficult to access because it is in the early stages of development. It’s noisy with trucks and earthmovers.

Last weekend, in a police station/trailer parked next to Boulevard Insurgentes, a policewoman eating lunch with her children said the office had been there only a week and she was not aware of the abduction. At offices up the hill overlooking vast maquiladora assembly plants of such giants as Hyundai and Samsung, a more modest compound identified itself as “El Florido Raserver S.A. de C.V.” From behind a chain-link gate, a nervous guard affirmed that this was the headquarters of “Colonel Serrano’s” business. He didn’t respond to questions about a “kidnap,” but said that lately his bosses were “very sensitive” about strangers coming to the compound.

In the days following Romero de Crespo’s abduction, rumors started to fly: that she had been abducted by a business associate; that she had been let go; that she was free in San Diego. But her mother, Georgina Serrano de Romero, told Zeta that none of the rumors were true.

“The information that someone she knew was the arranger of the kidnap is not accurate,” she said, speaking at the industrial park offices from which her daughter was taken. “We’re all praying for her return. We don’t blame anyone in particular. This is just the situation we live with in this country.”

Serrano de Romero also wanted to point out her family was not as rich as people thought. “Though it seems we own many properties, it’s not so,” she said. The Serrano family represents investors from various parts of the country who all want to realize “beneficial works for the Tijuanan community.”

Even if this turns out to be a “regular” kidnap, many have proved to be “improper abductions,” as local police call them.

Autosecuestro, self-kidnapping, is a scam in which a person becomes “victim” to an imagined kidnapper to collect on insurance or to evade debtors.The secuestro improprio happens when families refuse to pay a ransom and instead let the victim die so they can collect on the inheritance or insurance. The increasingly popular “secuestro express” involves a gang grabbing its victim and taking him or her to an ATM, forcing them to withdraw their maximum daily allowance. They hold their victims until midnight, when the machines reset, in order to withdraw more money. Abductors repeat the process until they deplete the victim’s account.

The FBI’s Gore says he doesn’t fear a plague of kidnappings crossing the border and infecting San Diego’s business community. However, he acknowledges that a lot of the Tijuana cases have cross-border connections. Thirty abductions over the last three years have had a cross-border dimension, some drug-related, some child-custody battles, and others to do with money.

Carlo Castillo, spokesman for the state attorney general’s office in Mexicali, claims a good success rate in the 29 kidnappings of 1998. All the victims returned home safely, he says, or the police rescued them, and police claim “more than 20 arrests” of kidnap-gang members.

Despite the successes, authorities believe some victims’ families avoid contacting them because the families possibly suspect police themselves of arranging abductions.

To combat the rising “industry” of kidnapping, Baja officials are contemplating some radical ideas, including acquiring the legal power to freeze victims’ accounts as soon as they have been abducted. That way kidnappers can’t gain access to their victim’s funds even if they’re willing to cooperate. Authorities have also hatched the idea of creating lists of potential targets of kidnappers — businessmen, usually — then monitoring them and educating them about counter-abduction measures. To implement this plan, they want to create a special unit to do the watching.

But the FBI’s Gore says as far as cross-border cooperation is concerned, some fundamental changes are needed, like securely scrambled radio communication on Mexican police channels that kidnappers can’t tune in to; and coordinated channels for better cross-border communication.

Last March at San Diego’s Naval Training Center, roughly 80 agents from eight law enforcement entities —Mexican and American — trained on how to handle cross-border kidnappings. Language problems, radio communications, and questions of turf surfaced immediately. Gore acknowledges that these difficulties, combined with many families’ refusals to involve the police, can make solving some kidnappings impossible.

Two weeks ago, many of Tijuana’s elite attended a Mass for Romero de Crespo in Tijuana. “Estoy rezando para que regrese mi hija,” said her mother, Georgina Serrano de Romero, later. “I am praying for the return of my daughter.”

About the same time, Monseñor Salvador Cisneros of the Autonomous University of Baja California, while recognizing the family’s desperate desire to recover their loved one at all cost, spoke out against allowing kidnapping to become an industry protected by its victims — and the media’s — silence. “Kidnapping will never cease,” he told Zeta, “if we play the kidnappers’ game. All silence, every ransom, rewards them.”

Last Thursday, after waiting a week to call Mr. Crespo back, a Reader reporter dialed his and his wife’s Coronado Cays telephone numbers. Each switched over to a recorded voice. “We’re sorry: you have reached a number that has been disconnected, or is no longer in service...”

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