MEXICO CITY — The street peddler's face darkened when asked how the Mexican government should deal with the rash of kidnappings and drug slayings terrorizing the nation.
"They should catch the perpetrators and kill them," said Luis Bote, 21, as he served steaming tacos from a basket on his bicycle. "Only if the criminals are afraid will these crimes ever stop."
Bote isn't alone. Such calls to reinstate the death penalty are gaining ground in Mexico amid an unprecedented surge in violent crime. Most of the violence is tied to the warring narcotics gangs, who killed a record 5,500 people last year, including a growing number of kidnapping victims.
In December, the governor of northern Coahuila state sponsored a bill in the Mexican Congress that would bring back the death penalty for kidnappers who murder their victims. Legislators are expected to debate the proposal when they resume sessions in February.
"These are people who won't be rehabilitated in jail," said Coahuila Gov. Humberto Moreira, whose cattle ranching state borders Texas. "Let's get real and let's start executing the kidnappers."
The Green Party, a minority party in Congress, has gone further, advocating capital punishment in all homicide cases. "Because we worry about your life, we're going to end the life of murderers," declare the party's billboards, which are plastered across the capital.
The proposals have sparked outrage from human rights activists, the Roman Catholic Church and some politicians, who denounce them as immoral and illegal. Mexico eradicated the final vestiges of the death penalty in 2005. The last time the punishment was applied here was in 1961.
Since 2000, the Mexican government has successfully defended more than 400 Mexicans on death row in the United States. Mexico is also bound by the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, which bars countries who have abolished the death penalty from later reinstating it.
Critics accuse Moreira of exploiting Mexicans' fear of kidnapping to rally votes ahead of the 2009 congressional elections. The governor's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is hoping to rebound as the country's dominant political force nine years after the collapse of the one-party system in 2000.
"It's clearly an electioneering tactic, and this is playing with the feelings of desperation of many Mexicans," said Carlos Navarrete, a senator with the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, which opposes the bill. "There are some topics with which the Congress should not play." The pro-Catholic National Action Party, to which President Felipe Calderon belongs, has also opposed the proposal.
But they may be out of touch with their electorate.
Between 70 and 80 percent of Mexicans favor the death penalty for kidnappers who kill their victims, according to several recent opinion polls. Forty-four percent support executing kidnappers in general, compared with 50 percent who are opposed, according to an August survey by The Associated Press and the pollster Ipsos.
Mexico has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world, with dozens of U.S. citizens among the victims. Officially, an average of 70 people are abducted each month, although private security firms say the real figure is 10 times higher. The kidnappers demand anywhere from a few hundred dollars to millions of dollars in ransom, in what has become an important source of income for the organized crime mafias.
Most Mexicans don't report kidnappings for fear of endangering the victims' lives or for fear that the police may be involved.
Those fears were confirmed in August with the kidnapping murder of Fernando Marti, the 14-year-old son of a sporting goods magnate. Marti's driver and body guard were also tortured and killed. Two Mexico City police officers, including the leader of the airport's anti-kidnapping squad, were later implicated in the murder and another 14 officers were placed under investigation.
Days later, one of the country's most prominent sports promoters, Nelson Vargas, revealed that his 17-year-old daughter, Silvia, had been kidnapped 11 months before and was still missing.
"No one is immune to this anymore," said Roderic Ai Camp, a Mexico expert at Claremont McKenna College in California." It has really brought home on a personal level that there's corruption and crime, and in extreme cases, violence that's touching everyone."
Still, opponents of reinstating the death penalty argue that the chances of executing the wrong person — particularly in such a notoriously flawed justice system as Mexico's — are unacceptably high. They also argue that the government should not greet violence with more violence.
"No one has the right to take someone's life," said Elisabeth Gonzalez, a copy shop worker in the capital. "That's not the way to fight crime. Supposedly that's what the laws are for."
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