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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.

“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?”