The real-life kidnapping that inspired KIDNAP & RANSOM

by Michelle Gagnon

My fourth book, KIDNAP & RANSOM, was released on November 1st. And unlike my last thriller, this time a real-life kidnapping sparked the initial idea for the story.

While researching border issues for THE GATEKEEPER in December of 2008, I stumbled across an article on the kidnapping of Felix Batista. Batista was a security consultant for ASI Global (if you saw the film PROOF OF LIFE, this was the same job held by Russell Crowe’s character).

Batista personally negotiated the release of more than a hundred hostages over the course of his career. That December he was in Saltillo, Mexico, offering advice on how to handle the uptick in abductions for ransom. While dining with local businessmen one evening, Batista excused himself from the table to take a phone call. On his way out of the restaurant to get better reception, he handed his companions his laptop and a list of phone numbers in case he didn’t return (this was a man who clearly knew you can never be too careful). Moments later, an SUV pulled to the curb and Batista was forced inside. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

The irony of the story grabbed me—the hero becoming the victim, an expert suddenly forced into the position he’d saved so many people from. Stranger still, his kidnapping wasn’t proceeding normally—there was no ransom demand, and no one claimed responsibility for seizing him. It was a true mystery. (And over the next two years, kidnappings and cartel violence in Mexico became increasingly rampant, spilling over the border to such an extent that related articles appeared in the U.S. media nearly every day.)

So I set off to find out more about narcocartels south of the border, and about kidnappings in general. I fixed on Los Zetas, mainly because their backstory was fascinating. Los Zetas is a gang comprised mainly of former Mexican Army soldiers. They were part of an elite brigade, comparable to the Army Rangers, trained in special operations techniques by the best in the business at Fort Benning in Georgia. Upon returning to Mexico, they promptly left the Army and went to work for the Gulf Cartel. Eventually, they branched off on their own, wresting control of drug trafficking operations from rival cartels. In recent years Los Zetas have become increasingly involved in kidnappings, murder-for-hire, extortion, money laundering, human smuggling, and oil siphoning. They’re suspected of killing the 72 migrants found in a mass grave in Tamaulipas last August, and of the murder of American David Hartley on Falcon Lake last September. The DEA considers Los Zetas to be the most violent paramilitary enforcement group in Mexico.
So when it came to villains, the choice was easy.

Last May, I attended the wedding of a friend from Mexico City who had helped tremendously with my research. At the reception, I was seated with some of his relatives. When they found out that my latest novel was set in their hometown, they were enthusiastic…until they heard the title.

“Oh, no,” one uncle said. “You cannot write about that. Mexico City is very safe.”

“Really?” I asked (in all sincerity, might I add). “I heard that most locals know at least one person who has been kidnapped.”

“Well, of course,” they all agreed. Every single person at the table knew someone who had been kidnapped. But as they explained, it’s much worse up north by the border with Texas. There, it’s really a problem.

Mexico is rapidly supplanting Iraq and Colombia as the kidnapping capital of the world. In the past decade, drug cartels and terror groups have seized upon kidnappings as a relatively low-risk source of financing. During a recent election in Russia, one political party’s entire campaign was funded covertly by ransom money.

Many kidnapping victims are held for months, or years. Some continue to be held even though their ransom has been paid. Many never make it home again.
I dedicated KIDNAP & RANSOM to them, and to people like Felix Batista who devote their lives to freeing them.

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