Mexican authorities say a major security operation has freed kidnapped soccer player Alan Pulido the day after he was abducted — though doubts remain over the official version that he was found because of a phone call he made to a local police hotline.
Pulido, a forward for the top Greek team Olympiakos who has also played for the Mexican national team, was kidnapped on Saturday night after going to a party with his girlfriend in the violence-torn northeastern state of Tamaulipas.
Local media reported that gunmen in several vehicles intercepted the couple on a highway near the ecological reserve of Los Troncones, not far from the state capital Ciudad Victoria. The attackers apparently pulled the 25-year-old player from his car, but left his girlfriend unharmed.
The state authorities said on Monday morning that they had rescued Pulido the previous night with the help of the army and federal police that maintain a heavy presence in the state that is notorious for the power of local drug cartels and its flourishing kidnapping industry.
Ismael Quintanilla of the Tamaulipas Security Coordination Group told a press conference that the soccer player's whereabouts were revealed when he managed to call the emergency police number shortly after his capture. Quintanilla said he was able to do this thanks to the "carelessness" of the kidnappers.
Quintanilla fleshed out this version of events after the idea of such careless kidnappers triggered a wave of skepticism on social media.
The official told Radio Imagen that Pulido had been tied up on the second floor of a safe house but had been able to wiggle himself free when his kidnappers were not looking. He was then, Quintanilla said, able to grab the phone of the member of the gang left to watch him and call the emergency number.
"Blows were exchanged, and he made the phone call," he said. "The rescue operation was mounted very quickly because the search operation underway was very intense."
Federal police chief Enrique Galindo had earlier given a somewhat different version of the events in which he said Pulido was released from a safe house after his captors reached "an agreement" with the authorities.
Galindo told Radio Fórmula that Pulido had been kidnapped for money, but that no ransom had been paid. He said that the kidnappers may not even have been aware of his identity.
"There are some elements to this story that raise doubts," said Max Morales, a well-known kidnapping negotiator. He stressed the "unusual" phone call, and questioned whether the kidnappers would release their captive without first collecting a ransom.
"When the news of the abduction first broke, it was clear that Pulido's family had already established contact with the kidnappers," Morales said. "A possible scenario is that a ransom was already negotiated and perhaps deposited, and that Pulido was brought to a nearby town and allowed to make a phone call."
Kidnapping is a long-standing problem throughout Mexico, and is particularly acute in Tamaulipas.
According to government figures there were 230 kidnappings reported last year in the state, some 21 percent of Mexico's total. The actual number is probably much higher because victims and their families often don't report the crime both for fear of reprisals, and because they worry about collusion within the security forces.
"Tamaulipas is, unfortunately, still a narcostate," said Morales. "Many people there disappear every year, and we never know the exact number."
The state, which borders Texas, is the traditional bastion of two rival cartels, the Gulf cartel and the Zetas. Both have weakened dramatically in recent years and today confrontations in the state are primarily blamed on infighting between different cartel factions. All factions are said to run kidnapping rackets.
The negotiator claimed that he has personally dealt with four kidnapping cases from Tamaulipas this year alone, and that the authorities have not been much help in any of them.
"When I'm dealing with a case in that state and ask them for help, I don't get it," he said. "Unfortunately they sort of make me laugh. They speak of coordinated efforts, but it's really just pinning medals on each other's chests."
After his day-long abduction and rescue, Pulido appeared in good physical shape, other than a bandaged right hand, when he spoke briefly to the press at the state police headquarters in Tamaulipas' capital city of Ciudad Victoria.
"I'm very well, thank God," he said, before he was driven away.
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