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

To prevent "virtual kidnappings," Mexico has created a national cell phone registry.

An employee works at a mobile phone shop in Mexico City, Oct. 20, 2009. (Daniel Aguilar/Reuters)

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.