Mariachi photo courtesy of the author
Evelyn Méndez Maldonado and Diego Quintana's dog Mariachi had been missing for almost a month when Quintana received a message via WhatsApp: "I want 2,500 pesos [$156] plus what I invested in caring for your dog."
A black and coffee-colored Chihuahua, Mariachi disappeared from the couple's yard in Oaxaca, Mexico in May. At first, they put up posters in their neighborhood, and asked around to see if anyone had seen the pooch. But around the time they started to receive correspondences about their dog, a woman told them Mariachi had been kidnapped, by a guy who worked at the local Green Party office.
"Ironically," Maldonado told VICE, "he worked for a party that has created many campaigns in favor of animal rights."
At first, the couple, who own a restaurant in the center of Oaxaca, tried to negotiate with the kidnapper. Quintana wrote to the kidnapper, "Look, I have a restaurant with delicious, fantastic food. You can come and eat for free five times." The kidnapper rejected the offer and responded that he wanted "what I invested in her [Mariachi] and the reward that you owe me." The kidnapper also mentioned that he needed to talk to his brother before confirming the price of the ransom. Maldonado and Quintana agreed to pay, although initially they didn't plan on actually handing over the money when they met up for the exchange.
"Knowing our country and with so much fear and knowledge of the many recent extortions, we didn't want to go and meet him," Maldonado said. "We asked him to meet us in the city center, but he refused." Instead, the kidnapper asked them to go to Santa Rosa, a neighborhood that Maldonado described as "pretty far away and very dangerous," to ransom their pet.
Eventually, the couple decided to go to the police to file a formal complaint, but the cops informed them that there wasn't enough evidence to conduct an investigation—although the police did offer to interrogate the alleged pet-snatcher if the couple tracked him down on their own. It seemed like an odd deal, but Maldonado and Quintana were set on getting Mariachi back.
"Legally speaking," said José Luis Carranza, a lawyer in Mexico City who specializes in animal rights, "pet kidnapping does not exist as a crime. According to the civil code of the country pets are things." However, Carranza added that gangs will often "drive around armed and rob pure-bred animals… to breed them, to sell them, and to extort the owners." In Mexico City, he added, pet robbery has increased in the last two years—there is even a Facebook page devoted to the problem.
"There are no statistics about these crimes because people don't report them," said Betsabe Torres from the animal defense group Hogar Mascota. However, the phenomenon is common enough that it pops up regularly in bar conversations, on the radio, and in TV announcements. Pet owners worried about kidnapping can ask their local vet to implant an identification chip in their pet or can find advice online like "Ten Things to Do When Pets Are Stolen or Kidnapped."
In an article published by the Mexican newspaper Milenio this January, Joaquín Carrillo of the Attorney General's office in Oaxaca said pet kidnappings are "isolated incidents." I called his office for more details, but his secretary said he was not available to speak with me.
Unlike Maldonado and Quintana, Héctor Barraza, whose schnauzer Oliver was kidnapped from the Plaza Uruguay in the wealthy Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City, did not go to the police to report the crime. "I think it is useless to go to the police," he said. "If it's useless to go to them when you are assaulted, they aren't going to pay any attention to a pet kidnapping. The families that have expensive dogs have enough money to contract private security to find their pets."
According to Barraza, he and his brother investigated the kidnapping on their own by offering a small monetary reward for information about Oliver, and eventually found the kidnapper. An older lady had stolen Oliver and immediately sold the dog to a man in her neighborhood. Barraza tracked down the man, and negotiated Oliver's return in exchange for 500 pesos, or about $31.
In a country whose most notorious drug lord just tunneled his way out of prison—and where 1,621 people were murdered in May alone—dog-snatching may not seem like a particularly pressing crime problem. But the rise in pet kidnappings—and the lack of police interest in solving them—underscores thelarger problems that have plagued Mexico's notoriously corrupt and ill-trained law enforcement forces.A May 2014 study conducted by the Washington Office on Latin America on Mexico's police force, subtitled "Many reforms, little progress," found that only 12 percent of all crimes in Mexico are reported, explaining, "Forces at all levels are riddled with corruption and are widely seen as being ineffective in enforcing the law or even as enabling crime."
Which explains why small-time criminals feel free to take dogs and children and adult humans and hold them for ransom. A 2015 Crime and Safety Report for Mexico City noted, "The number of kidnappings reported throughout Mexico is of particular concern. The overall numbers of kidnapping incidents are difficult to determine because most of the cases are not reported to authorities."
In Oaxaca, Maldonado and Quintana decided to do whatever it took to catch the guy who stole their dog. The tipster provided them with a description of the culprit after seeing him walk into the local Green Party office with a dog who looked like Mariachi. Since the couple's house was close to the office in question, Maldonado and Quintana decided to keep a lookout for the dog.
One day, they saw a man matching the tipster's description walking to the Green Party offices, and called the police. When Maldonado, Quintana, and a policeman arrived at the Green Party offices, they asked where the thief was, but other people in the officesaid they hadn't seen him.
"But when we looked around, we found him hiding under a desk," Maldonado said. "We realized that he was a young kid, only 16-years-old. This is the saddest part of the story. How is it so easy for a young person to resort to extortion? It is the most practical thing these days, part of the decay of society."
When the boy's family arrived, Maldonado said, the couple began to suspect the parents might have put him up to it.
"They said, 'We aren't rich people.' And we replied, 'We aren't either. Just because we live in a different neighborhood doesn't mean we have more money.'"
One month and one week after the kidnapping, Mariachi was back home. "We went to their house alone to pick up our dog," Quintana said. "They asked us for money, and we gave it to them because we knew what type of people they were and we didn't want to have problems. We prefer not to have enemies."
Follow Alice Driver on Twitter.