Mexico: A phone call, a scream and a plea for help

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — On a Saturday morning this February, Rosario Garcia picked up her cell phone and heard the sound Mexicans have come to fear most: the scream of a loved one in trouble.

“Mom, help me! Something horrible has happened,” said a voice so like that of her 33-year-old daughter that Rosario was sure it was she.

“Paula, is that you?” she asked, panicked.

“They have me in a car. I’ve been kidnapped,” answered the voice. Then a man came on the phone.

“If you don’t give us what we want we’re going to kill your daughter, Paula,” he said. As he spoke, Rosario could hear what she assumed was her daughter pleading for mercy in the background.

Then she heard something else, something impossible.

“Dad, help me!” the woman said. But Paula’s father had died years before. The girl on the phone wasn’t Paula. The kidnapping was a fake. Shaken nonetheless, Rosario hung up.

Experts say that since the practice began nine years ago, as many as 20 million Mexicans like Rosario have fallen victim to such “virtual kidnappings” — an effective extortion technique in a country where real kidnappings are a common occurrence. The procedure is simple: a phone call, a scream and a plea for help, and a demand for money or financial information before a bewildered parent even has a chance to check on the child.

Until recently, it seemed there was little the government could do to prevent these calls. In the past decade, an explosion in cell phone usage across Mexico has meant millions of unregistered — and untraceable — phone lines, hundreds of thousands of which have been used in extortion schemes. By some estimates, more than 12,000 such calls are made each day in Mexico, almost all of them from within Mexican jails.

Now, however, a new government database aims to end this impunity by requiring that all Mexicans register their cell phones. Officials say the database, called the National Registry of Mobile Telephone Users, or RENAUT, will allow investigators to trace phones used in extortions or kidnappings and bring the criminals to justice. Just last week, the federal government moved to deactivate as many as 30 million phone lines that had not been registered on the database by an April 10 deadline.

But the program has already come under heavy criticism: from telephone companies upset over losing business as lines are blocked, from civic groups that argue the database violates Mexicans’ right to privacy and from security experts who argue the database will do more harm than good.

Perhaps the biggest fear here in Mexico is that if people do register, their information will just end up in the hands of criminals.

“This cell phone registry is not going to contain crime at all because the information will just be put up for sale,” said Fernando Ruiz, president of the Council for Law and Human Rights, an NGO that investigates kidnappings and extortion in Mexico.

Already, hundreds of thousands of people — criminals and wary citizens alike — have found a way to beat the system, Ruiz said. Of the 65 million cell phone lines registered to date, as much as 6 percent have been under false names, including thousands in the name of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, Mexican pop stars or even President Felipe Calderon himself.

“These delinquents are making an absolute joke out of it,” said Ruiz.

In a strange twist, the new registry could actually hurt innocent Mexicans, whose information and cell phone accounts are already routinely hacked, he said.

“Now we’re going to see cases of completely innocent people pulled into kidnapping investigations, simply because the phone line used in the kidnapping is under their name without their knowledge,” said Ruiz.

“We have spent millions of dollars on RENAUT and it’s not going to work at all,” echoed Ghaleb Krame, a technology and security expert at Alliant International University in Mexico City. “This database is going to be a big headache for the government.”

Worse still, in a country ranked 89th in the world in terms of corruption, many Mexicans fear the government will misuse the data, despite promises it will be kept confidential.

“This is absolutely an affront to an individual’s civil rights. It’s a Mexican version of the Patriot Act,” Krame said. “There is no counterbalance to potential government abuse.”

Earlier this week, the Mexican newspaper El Universal reported that confidential information — including driver’s license numbers, voting registrations and even photo IDs of federal policemen — are openly for sale on Mexico City’s black market, presumably put there by government officials.

Such revelations have lead even supporters of RENAUT to call for greater safeguards.

“The reality is that there are too many irregularities still within the law, and it has created uncertainty among the population," said Gerardo Leyva, a legislator who, as head of the Communications Commission, has proposed stiff penalties for misusing RENAUT. “Mexicans are afraid that even the federal government, or the people in charge of running the registry, could use the information to intimidate, threaten or kidnap people, or that the data could make its way into the hands of organized crime.”

Still, Leyva insisted, the alternative is worse.

“Given that these cell phones are used to make threats or to demand ransoms for kidnappings, the registry is worth it,” he said.

But many Mexicans — including victims of “virtual kidnappings” — aren’t so sure. Lucrecia Solano is among the doubters.

First the man on the phone told Solano that he was a banker checking on her account. He even knew her name. But when she asked how he got her cell phone number, his story changed.

“We have a pistol to your mother’s head,” he said. “If you don’t give us what we want, we’ll shoot her right here and now.”

What he wanted was $2,000. But Solano had heard of similar threats from friends and family. Despite worries that her mom could actually be in danger, she called the man’s bluff.

“I don’t have a mother,” she said and hung up. Then she drove straight to her mom’s house, where she found the 86-year-old on the couch watching television.

Like 75 percent of Mexicans, Solano registered her cell phone on the database, but reluctantly.

“I don’t agree with how they are making us give more and more information all the time,” she said. “Besides, I don’t think the kidnappers are going to register their phones on RENAUT, so how is the government going to catch them?”