Monday, September 2, 2013

Small-time crooks

He's a slight but genuinely Mexican man, so our gardener Félix is not prone to bouts of crying, blubbering, trembling or fear-stricken stammering—least of all in public—yet that is what he was doing when he came into my office ten days ago.

"Alfredo, they are going to kill my family!" he said without any preambles.

"Who, what, why?" I said, shocked by the message as well as his helpless appearance.

Amid sobs he said that while we were away in the morning he had received a phone call demanding five-thousand pesos (about four-hundred dollars) otherwise someone would come by his house and kill his family, presumably his wife and two kids and perhaps also his parents and siblings who live next door.

I almost joined Félix in his panic until I paused and thought: Wait, even for Mexico this scenario is pretty far-fetched.

If someone were going to extort money, they'd pick a businessman or lawyer not a gardener from Sosnavar living in a one-room house. How did the would-be extortionists get his cellular phone number? How would they know where Félix lived?

Toll-free placebo: Call us and we'll do nothing
I tried to calm him down but that only prompted more outlandish details. The callers had identified themselves as the Zetas, a dreaded gang of narcotrafficking killers, who claimed someone using Félix' phone had tipped off the military authorities in Guanajuato as to their whereabouts, leading to the loss of a large cache of weapons.

As far as I know, I said, the Zetas are nowhere near Guanajuato and only operate in remote areas along the U.S.-Mexico border. Besides, Félix said he hadn't called anyone about any weapons. If you met Félix you'd realize he doesn't quite fit the profile of a daring government informant lurking by a lamppost wearing sunglasses and a fedora.

The only thing I could think of was to call 066, the Mexican equivalent of 911 and report the extortion attempt, but immediately realized that would hardly calm Félix' nerves because on numerous occasions he had expressed his undiluted contempt for the police whom he claims do nothing but shake down people. He may have a point there.

The operator dismissed my claims and said extortion calls are rampant and don't mean anything. "Next time just hang up and don't worry about it," she said.

"Well, aren't you going to do anything?" I asked.

"No," she said.

So I put Félix on the phone so maybe he could get a rise out of the emergency operator. He retold the entire story, with more graphic details, pregnant pauses, and Mexican slang and sobs, but the operator remained impressed.

Next idea from Félix was to go into hiding for two weeks with his family until the assassination threat passed.

"You can do anything you want but I'm not going to pay for this crazy horseshit, either by giving you time off or lending you the extortion money, so you'd better calm down and think about this because it doesn't make any sense," I said.

By now the only thing I could think of was to take his phone to the phone company to have the chip and the phone number changed, which cost me about ten dollars.

The uniformed mopes at the phone company were as unimpressed with the situation as the emergency operator. "Those calls are rampant and the only thing to do is hang up," one of them said.

But Félix remained in a panic and ran home to take his family to an undisclosed location where they remained for several days, though he continued to come to work.

Since then I've talked to several people who confirmed just what the emergency operator and the phone company folk had said. In fact many of these extortion calls have been traced to jails, where prisoners apparently sit in their cells, dialing numbers in sequence—as in 109-3123, -3124, -3125, etc.—until some sucker takes the bait and deposits the money in a bank account.

By now questions, obvious ones, are probably buzzing in your head. Why doesn't the government trace the phone numbers that appear on the cell phones of the prospective victims? If the calls mostly come from jails, why do they allow the prisoners to have cell phones? Couldn't the government track down the owners of the bank accounts to which the money is going?

Ah, I'm sure many latter-day Perry Masons out there can come up with other investigative leads that could put an end to these scams.

But so far the only action the state government seems to have taken is to put up billboards with special toll-free numbers to report extortion attempts, staffed with operators ready to counsel callers to just settle down.

"It happens all the time, don't worry about it and just hang up."

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