“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts; it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
Anthony Bourdain

Introduction to My Kidnapping in Mexico Story

Note:  This article appeared in several Facebook pages about living in Mexico. I have read the comments from these Facebook groups and am not sure one point is clear. One of the most critical lessons from the kidnapping is that it is difficult to know whether a place is dangerous in advance.

I got into the cab partly because I believed what I had read on the internet, namely that Puebla was one of Mexico’s safest cities, and I learned the hard way that this was not true. Before this happened, I would not have gotten into a street cab in Mexico City because I knew it was dangerous. After what happened, I will avoid street cabs unless I am sure that the City does not have any express kidnappings. If I had read a post like mine about Puebla, I would never have entered the cab in the first place. 

On January 19, 2020, my worldview was temporarily turned upside down. I was the victim of an express kidnapping in Puebla, Mexico. 

Before the kidnapping, I always felt safe traveling, and now I feel like I must be hypervigilant. I have always loved the freedom to explore new places, and now I realize that the gift to explore freely is fragile. Anyone can take away the right randomly.

However, while I doubt I will ever forget the kidnapping, I know, that over time, I will feel safe again.

Why I Hesitate to Write this Blog Post

I struggled a long time before I decided to post this blog. I want to encourage nomads to live their dreams and travel and live outside of the US and Canada.

We tend to think that the world is scarier than it is. Stories, like mine, contribute to the sense of insecurity.

Tourism is a vital part of the Mexican economy. No matter how relatively small, any bad news affects the economic well-being of thousands of people. These people are as much, if not more, victims of crime as I was.

Even to someone as experienced as me, bad things can and do happen. That said, I want this website to reflect the good and bad realities of a nomadic lifestyle; therefore, I feel obliged to report things as they are. I hope my post will save Fifty-Plus Nomads from being victims of express kidnappings and other possibly avoidable crimes.

I have visited 27 of the 31 states and spent over a year traveling around Mexico. In fact, until a couple of weeks ago, I pooh-poohed many warnings about traveling in Mexico. Two days before I was express kidnapped, my step-uncle even wrote me an email where he said, “For God’s sake, be careful driving around Mexico. We read about Cartel Insanity almost every week”. My reply “I am taking buses, Ubers, and taxis around Mexico, and they are convenient, comfortable, inexpensive, and safe”.

While I intend to keep traveling around and living in Mexico, I am much more cautious than when I replied to my step-uncle’s email. I realize that I had a lapse in judgment and probably could have avoided problems by being more careful.

What is an Express Kidnapping?

Note: The following is an excerpt (with some editing on my part) from the World Nomads website. You can find more information in the following Vox report.

Express kidnappings have occurred in Mexico for the last couple of decades. (Note they are also common in some other Latin American countries).

Express kidnappings occur when someone hails what appears to be a legitimate taxi cab and instead finds that the taxi driver is a criminal who forces you to withdraw cash from an ATM. The driver may also steal your valuables. Sometimes, they’ll call your family and ask for a ransom payment. 

Usually, these criminals make their victims withdraw money from an ATM and release them afterward.

Around 2006, Mexican criminal groups used express kidnappings to help fund their activities. According to Víctor Manuel Sánchez Valdés, “Criminal groups earn less per victim but can carry out many more kidnappings without attracting the attention of the authorities¨.

According to the National Institute for Statistics and Geography in Mexico, Express kidnappings made up 66 percent of all kidnapping crimes in 2016. Between January and March 2018, 400 kidnappings occurred.

The Mexican government has failed to combat kidnapping, and police are sometimes involved in the abductions. Only “1 percent of all kidnappers are captured and carried to justice,” said Torres Landa, the Mexico United Against Organized Crime consultant. “There is a huge incentive to participate in these activities.”

My Experience: Kidnapping in Puebla Mexico

My Kidnapping

On Friday, January 17, 2020, I arrived in Puebla and was express kidnapped just two days later. It was the third time I visited the City — the first time in 1986 and the second in 2012. In 2012, I heard that Puebla was one of Mexico’s safest cities but did not realize how much had changed in the intervening seven years.

I called for a cab from a friend’s hotel in the central city of Puebla to go to the apartment where I was staying. I had taken the same route twice before in an Uber without a problem.

When I was express kidnapped, I tried to call for an Uber, and no one came after a couple of tries. 

I saw a taxi that looked to be legitimate and got into the cab. (Black and yellow like many others in the City). I do not remember anything about the taxi driver. The taxi cab driver took me about four or five blocks. He stopped, and I thought he stopped to ensure that he was going the right way. (This has happened to me frequently, and I have been in hundreds if not thousands of taxis and Ubers in Mexico).

Instead, three men entered the cab in a matter of what seemed like less than a minute. I was in the back seat. Two of the men got in the back seat and pushed me down into the middle seat for the entire ride. Another man entered and sat in the passenger’s front seat. (I think he made the subsequent ATM withdrawals). I do not know if they were armed.

At first, I tried to resist as the two men pulled me down and applied pressure on my arms so I could not move quickly. I received several bruises on my hand (also briefly swollen) and legs before realizing that I should comply and stop trying to escape.

Within what seemed like less than a minute, the criminals put a baseball cap over my face and took my glasses, watch, wallet, and phone. I did not see their faces. They also took all my cash-probably around 1500 pesos or $75. (In the future, I will take fewer cards with me and leave one or two cards and some cash behind in my hotel room).

The criminals asked me if I was a tourist, and I replied yes. They assured me that in that case, they would release me after they got some money and did not want to do me any physical damage. They demanded that I give them my pin code for my phone, my ATM card, and three credit cards. I gave them the ATM card and phone pin but noted that I did not know the PIN  from my credit cards, I do not know what they looked at on my phone. They seemed to talk to someone on the phone who was supervising the kidnapping.

The criminals drove around rather slowly and appeared to stop several times. They withdrew money from my ATM card approximately an hour and a quarter after entering the car. (Note: The criminals could have made the withdrawals after releasing me, but I doubt it).

Surprisingly, they returned my wallet, including my driver’s license and health insurance card. The criminals said everything went well and discussed getting a vehicle repaired with their money. They appeared to release me about ten to twenty minutes after they made the withdrawals.

According to my bank records, I know that the criminals made eight withdrawals from my account over only seven minutes, all from the same bank branch. The total of these withdrawals was nearly $1500 US.

In response to a call I made to the bank two years before the incident, the bank supposedly allowed me a maximum daily withdrawal limit of $2000. (I wanted this high limit to pay for repairs on my house). I was surprised that the thieves could make so many withdrawals so quickly.

I thought I could not take more than 15000 pesos or $750 in one day. However, I tried to make large withdrawals a couple of times soon after the bank supposedly increased the limit, and I never tried to get more money afterward. (In fact, the thieves even asked me how much they could get, and I replied 15000 pesos).

I guess the thieves were able to take out so much because:

  • The thieves may have been able to take two days worth of withdrawals because the withdrawals occurred around midnight; or
  • The bank honored the $2000 limit because I hadn’t tried to take out that much money in a long time.
I was a victim of an express kidnapping in Mexico (Puebla). I have been to Puebla, Mexico, five times. Four times, I was impressed by its safety and beauty. The fifth time I was forced to give thieves my wallet, money, phone, watch, and glasses and pinned down for two hours while thieves took my money from an ATM machine, (photo by pxfuel)
I was a victim of an express kidnapping in Mexico (Puebla). I have been to Puebla, Mexico, five times. Four times, I was impressed by its safety and beauty. The fifth time I was forced to give thieves my wallet, money, phone, watch, and glasses and pinned down for two hours while thieves took my money from an ATM machine (photo by pxfuel)

My Kidnapping Release

After about an hour and a half – without a watch, it is hard to know for sure- the criminals released me. When the criminals released me, they pushed me about a block with the cap over my eyes. Then they took off the hat and told me not to look back, or they would kill me.

I thought they said another car would arrive to take me to my hotel and may have told me to go a block and then turn left to get the car. But to be honest, I am not sure. The whole conversation took place in Spanish, and though, as a whole, I am reasonably conversant in Spanish, I may have been confused. 

I walked up about four or five blocks and came to a busy street. I waited for the thieves’ car for about ten minutes and finally thought to myself: ¨Why would I want to get into another of the criminals’ vehicles?¨ Shellshocked, I continued to walk down the street, trying to decide what to do.

When I got to an intersection, I looked for a car that stopped at a stoplight with friendly-looking people inside. The fear on my face must have been evident because as I approached a vehicle, the driver rolled down the window and talked to me, and I explained the situation.

The driver told me that he would call the police. He promised me that he would wait for me. The driver then told me that this type of thing had started happening in Puebla a year or so before, particularly in Central City. I remember frequently saying thanks and ensuring he and his family were safe. He and his family stayed as promised until about ten minutes later, the police arrived.

I decided to have the police take me back to the hotel where my friend, Ann, was staying. I knew that I could ask her for some money, use her phone to cancel my credit cards, phone, ATM card, etc., and, most importantly, did not want to be alone.

Along the way to Ann’s hotel, the police took me to the apartment where I was staying. I got my baggage and returned to Ann’s hotel. Thankfully, I had my laptop at the hotel, which helped me get all the information I needed for my later calls to banks, etc.

The police took a report at the hotel, and the desk clerk called Ann. (By this time, it was around 2 am). I told Ann that I was express kidnapped and that I needed help. I stayed in her hotel for the rest of my stay. Even though there was a guard in the apartment complex where I was staying, I could not muster the courage to go back to the apartment.

The Next Steps After My Kidnapping

I used Ann’s phone to cancel all my cards, phone, etc. I was surprised by how bureaucratic and baffled all the people I talked to on the phone were. Only the agent at the bank where the criminals used my ATM card even understood what happened. 

Ann called a mutual friend, Beth, the next day. Beth mentioned that maybe the hotel had a video of me entering the cab. To my surprise, they did have a video, and I do not know if they could get much information from the video. The hotel manager told me that these kidnappings did not happen much in the central City and that I should make a denuncia formal,” an official report to the prosecutor’s office (called a “fiscal” in Spanish).

Two days later, I went to the prosecutor’s office and made the “denuncia.” I told them that the hotel had a video of my entering the taxi and gave them information from the bank about the withdrawals made. A prosecutor interviewed me in Spanish for an hour and a half and gave me a copy of his report. I do not know if it will mean anything in the long run, but I am still glad I made the report. The prosecutor told me that the kidnappings were quite common in Central City.

I thought about returning to Merida for a couple of days, but I couldn’t return to my house in Merida since it was already rented to other people until my scheduled return six weeks later. After some reflection, I decided that I needed to keep traveling as I had planned before. I had made a bunch of arrangements that were likely non-refundable. Perhaps, more importantly, I realized that I would be better off psychologically not caving into my fears. I stayed with Ann until my scheduled leave for Puerto Vallarta five days later.

The bank credited my account for the withdrawals. Over the next two weeks, I got new credit cards and ATM cards. I bought a new watch and phone. I will get new glasses when I return to Merida in March. Getting my economic life back in order has not taken too long.

Now the most prominent scar left is emotional. I sense that the kidnapping will leave psychological scars for a while, and I expect these scars to change and heal over time.

Even though my express kidnapping was one of the worst events of my life, I think it would have been even worse if I did not have enough Spanish to understand my kidnappers and talk to the police and prosecutor’s office. While I doubt you’ll need Spanish o deal with a situation like mine, wouldn’t it make you feel better if you could? (photo by Manuel Mendarte / Presidencia de la República Mexicana – https://www.flickr.com/photos/presidenciamx/43474392031, CC BY 2.0, Wikipedia).

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#1 Lesson Learned from My Kidnapping in Puebla Mexico

Be careful before getting a taxi off the street, particularly at night.

If I had been at an airport or a bus station, the best option, if available, would have been to buy a ticket from an authorized taxi service kiosk before getting a taxi. I should have waited for an Uber, taken a cab at a “sitio” (stand), or asked the hotel to call me a cab. If you must enter a cab alone off the street, experts advise that you ask the driver for his license, take a picture, and send a photo copy to a friend electronically. These tactics ensure that the driver is easily traceable and will not jeopardize their relationship with the hotel, taxi company, or Uber.

#2 Lesson Learned: It is Difficult to Know If a Place is Safe 

You can’t tell if a place is safe or not easily by doing online research ahead of time.

Almost all the websites that I checked before going to Puebla suggested that Puebla is a very safe city, including:

#3 Lesson Learned: I Didn’t Have a Very Accurate Idea of Safety in Mexico Before the Kidnapping

Until the kidnapping, anytime someone asked me about safety in Mexico, I would say without hesitation that most of Mexico is safe for tourists.

I took street cabs hundreds of times in Mexico without any problems. Many taxis even went out of their way to ensure I got to where I needed safely.

Yet, just one terrifying taxi ride made me question all my previous beliefs. Nowadays, when I get the question, I respond that while I have overall been safe in Mexico, bad things can happen if you are not careful and later tell people about my kidnapping.

I always used to point out the following information when asked about safety in Mexico:

  • Most crime in Mexico is near the border and in a few crime hotspots like Acapulco and Culiacan
  • Kidnappings only happen to rich people who are worth the time and expense to take hostage. (Thus, how you dress and act can help reduce your chance of being targeted).
  • Criminals try to avoid doing anything to tourists. Tourists cause too much wrong publicity, which leads to too much heat from authorities.
  • The homicide rate in the US in 1990 was only 50% less than the murder rate in Mexico in 2018. (Today it is six times more in Mexico than in the US).

After the kidnapping, I learned that this information was incorrect because:

  • The kidnapping took place away from the border or a crime hotspot.
  • Nowadays, the victims of express kidnappings are middle-class Mexicans.
  • I have never seen much news coverage of tourists who were express kidnapped.  I am not sure if that is because it is rare or not interesting to the news media.

#4 Lesson Learned: One of the Best Ways to Know if a City is Safe is From Locals.

Before she knew about the kidnapping, a young woman in Puebla seemed concerned about our safety when Ann and I tried to get money from Western Union. After the withdrawal, she and her boyfriend drove us back to our hotel. 

Interestingly, if I had done more research on safety in Puebla, I would have found the following article in Mexico News Daily. (Mexico News Daily is an excellent place for up-to-date safety information). Originally published in El Universal, one of Mexico’s major newspapers, the article is entitled ¨Puebla; The Country’s Most Insecure City¨.

According to the article, 92.7% of interviewees in Puebla were afraid of being victims of crime. The highest percentage of any city in Mexico. Even more alarmingly, in 52 percent of the households, at least one family member was a crime victim. (Thankfully, only 19% of people interviewed in Merida, the city where I live, were afraid of crime, and Merida reported the lowest level of fear of any major city in Mexico).

#5 Lesson Learned: Some Surprising Psychological Lessons From the Kidnapping

For the First Time in Many Years, I am Genuinely Looking Forward to Going Home.

In the past, I had mixed feelings when I returned home after a long trip. (Note: I have been away from my home in Merida for two and a half months). While I usually was glad to go home, I also wanted to keep traveling. Although I have had some good experiences the month after my kidnapping (and do not regret my decision to keep traveling), I do not feel that way now.

I do not have the same adventurous, carefree spirit as before and feel more comfortable in familiar surroundings.

After the kidnapping, when I went from Puerto Vallarta to Chapala, I dreaded taking a cab from the Guadalajara bus station to Chapala. Before I entered the taxi, I asked the driver for his certificate, and he showed it to me and said I could take a photo and email it to a friend to make me feel more comfortable. When we arrived in Chapala, the taxi cab driver drove around the City to ensure that he took me to the right place. When we arrived at my apartment, the driver got out of the taxi and waited until I was confident that this was the right place. Most of the drivers in similar situations provided similar services.

While it helped to make me feel safe, I felt uncomfortable asking for the driver’s credentials. I felt like the express kidnappers took away an important reason why I love Mexico (trust in the kindness of everyday people like the taxi driver),

#6 Lesson Learned: I Do Not Know What I Would Have Done if Ann Had Not Been There with Me

While I am usually glad to travel alone, I am not sure how I would have coped with the kidnapping if I had been alone. It would have been harder without Ann’s help with a loan and phone use. But, more important, I felt highly uncomfortable being alone in Puebla.

I did everything with her until Ann returned to Merida five days later. Without Ann, I may have decided to return to Merida, the US, or Canada. (I probably needed permission to leave Mexico because I am renewing my residency card).

I am also unsure if I would have made the “denuncia” if Ann had not been there. I feared the criminals might be watching me and inflict damage if I reported the crime. I did something, though small, to fight back. Doing the denuncia” helped me feel less like a victim. (Writing and posting this blog post has a similar effect as making the ¨denuncia¨ ).

#7 Lesson Learned: I Feel More Committed to Living in Merida than I Did Before the Kidnapping.

The kidnapping forced me to take a hard look at all my experiences in Mexico throughout my life. I realize that Mexico is vital to me. I could write a long story listing all the times Mexicans have gone out of their way to help me. Most of the issues I discuss in my blog: The Pros and Cons of Living in Mérida, seem much smaller than before the kidnapping. Now, I want to do my best to adjust to my life in Mexico and Merida.

#8 Lesson Learned: Every Mexican is a Victim of Express Kidnapping

I have seen what lousy publicity can do to a city firsthand and do not want to make people stop visiting Puebla. I want to encourage visitors to be more careful than I was.

Before going to Puebla, I attended a two-week course at a Spanish school in Cuernavaca and spent two weeks at the same school in 2005. The school has maintained high-quality instruction, dedicated staff, and a unique curriculum.

However, I am sad to report that the school does not have anywhere near as many students as it did fifteen years ago. Fifteen years ago, Cuernavaca was the center of Spanish language schools in Mexico. (There were 24 schools in Cuernavaca, and today there are only eight. And if the school is an indication, even these eight programs have fewer students than previously).

There are fewer students and schools because Morelos (Cuernavaca’s home state) is on the US State Department’s Travel Advisory as a Level 3 destination. Level 3 means Reconsider travel due to crime.” Violent crime and gang activity are common.

Until this designation, universities in the US and Canada sent hundreds of students to Cuernavaca to study the language and Mexican culture. Yet, today, these schools have stopped sending students out of fear. (Ironically, I think many of these schools are now sending students to Puebla)

I felt very safe during my stay at the school. The school’s staff and my homestay were, as usual in Mexico, extremely concerned for my safety. Part of their goal is to teach students to be comfortable and safe. The school kept me busy. I easily took taxis (some off the street) and Ubers between my homestay and school at least once a day. I did not see any indication of crimes against tourists.

Sadly, these decisions affect the lives of many Cuernavacans. My homestay had been hosting students for thirty years. Until a few years ago, the host had a constant stream of students. Nowadays, she hosts five to six students a year for around 2-3 months. I imagine that she is one of the luckier host families. Most of the host families from 15 years ago in Cuernavaca no longer receive students.

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Paul Heller has been a lifelong avid traveler and language learner and teacher, Even as a child, he told Santa Claus that he wanted to visit all the children worldwide. At seven years old, Paul wanted to retire to Mexico. At eight, he memorized the name, capital, location, and some facts about every country worldwide. At twelve, he found a book "Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" and started developing his own itinerary for a future round-the-world trip. He remained obsessed with travel; after getting a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and working as an administrator, He spent his vacations going to different countries around the globe studying language, touring, and volunteering. In 1994, he quit his job and lived in Russia as a volunteer English instructor. He discovered that he loved teaching languages. In 2004, he decided to make a living out of his travels and founded a community of people who love to travel just like him. He developed 5 three-hour classes about living and traveling long-term worldwide which he taught in over 50 adult education programs throughout the US. After his parents passed, he realized his dream of traveling around the world; cruising and touring some of the most remote places like the North Atlantic, Patagonia, and Oceania; and learning new languages (he knows Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian). Paul encourages everyone to learn foreign languages. He knows that it can be frustrating and slow but that anyone can learn a language if they put in the work and, most importantly, learning a language is well worth the time and effort because it opens up a whole new set of people, ideas, and cultures. He is currently spending the next chapter of his life in Mérida, México. He is excited about using this blog and his classes and workshops to inspire and equip fellow Fifty Plus Nomads with the language, cultural, and psychological skills necessary to be successful and happy long-term travelers and expats over 50.

6 Comments

  1. Hi Paul
    Your story about express kidnapping made me nauseas but in the big picture, I think you learned a lot and this will help other people to more careful. You are a interesting traveler and talented writer. Proud to say I know you. Priscilla

    • Paul Heller Reply

      Thanks. I appreciate your kind words and support and look forward to seeing you again when the Coronavirus period stops.

  2. Hello,
    I’m sorry you had such a difficult and frightening experience. I do think that men are generally more brave than women. I would never have taken a cab that wasn’t at a kiosk or called by the hotel. I went to language school in Puebla in 2002 and again in 2004 and the difference in the city in just that 2 year period was sad. It’s a wonderful city. in ’02 I walked to my homestay after school… in ’04, I was not left alone…ever. Thanks so much for sharing your stories and for your web site! I just discovered it today as a friend said she is retiring to Merida and I thought I’d google a bit. Cheers!

    • Paul Heller Reply

      Thanks for your kind words. Hope it helps others to avoid my bad fate. Despite everything said, I truly hope that Puebla becomes safer and safer in the future. It’s a beautiful city, though I doubt I’ll be back soon-.

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