Mexican takes action after her son is kidnapped, killed

McClatchy NewspapersMay 20, 2009 

Hugo Wallace loved motorcycles and American football. When he failed to phone his mother one morning she suspected the worst and organized her own effort to find his kidnappers.

LAUREN MCCORMACK/PSU/MCT

  • FROM PENN STATE

    About these stories

    This story resulted from a nine-day reporting trip to Mexico City by print and broadcast student journalists from Penn State University. See all of their work here.

MEXICO CITY — Isabel Miranda Wallace keeps her son's home exactly as it was on the night he disappeared, in the faint hope that one day the Pittsburgh Steelers fan and motorcycle enthusiast will come bounding in again.

Until then, the airy, comfortable place will remain vacant, save for the occasional visiting journalist.

No one sits in the large, chocolate-colored leather seats; no one lights the oversized candles; no one admires the view of lush, tropical vegetation outside Hugo Alberto Wallace's living room; and no one sleeps in the bedroom beyond the dining room.

"This is the only bond I have with him, and it's the only tangible thing I have left of him," his mother said.

Hugo Wallace left his home on July 11, 2005, ostensibly for a date to see the movie "Fantastic Four" with a pretty woman who'd been introduced to him as "Claudia," his sister's name.

He never returned. Instead, he became another name on the distressingly long list of well-to-do Mexicans who've been kidnapped for ransom and murdered.

A criminal-justice research center, the Citizens' Council for Public Security and Penal Justice, found that 1,028 kidnappings were reported to the authorities last year. Of those, 65 of the victims were killed, according to the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers.

Few in Mexico put any faith in official figures, however. Private criminal-justice groups and research centers say that only a fraction of kidnappings are reported to the police, in part because corrupt law-enforcement officers either are in cahoots with the gangs or are responsible for the kidnappings.

However, in a country where these crimes are rarely reported and even more rarely investigated seriously, Isabel Wallace didn't stop at mourning for her son and keeping his home as a shrine.

Almost singlehandedly, she's organized and pursued her own investigation, which has captured public sympathy, turned the national spotlight on the kidnapping epidemic and kept pressure on the authorities.

"Here in Mexico, where you have 99 percent of all crimes not punished, then the message you are giving to society is you can kill anyone you want to or you can kidnap whenever you want to, and nothing is going to happen to you; you can do it," she said.

She tracked down the apartment where Hugo was killed, she posted videos of the kidnapping suspects on YouTube and she even erected billboards with the suspects' photos on them.

Along the way, she became an unofficial national spokeswoman for kidnap victims and their families, featured in the Mexican news media, a regular on the British Broadcasting Corp. and more recently the subject of a "60 Minutes" profile.

There's a downside to that advocacy, though. The Wallaces are threatened routinely. Isabel Wallace has been shot at. Her grandsons are forbidden to walk around their own backyard. Hulking bodyguards watch visitors to Hugo Wallace's home. Bulletproof SUVs line the condo's driveway, and cameras peer out from every angle of the house.

"I try not to take the same way every day to go to my office, my house," said Claudia Wallace, Isabel Wallace's daughter. "I keep every door in my house locked, and I also have video cameras in my house that record everything to an Internet page to my mother, so if something happens, she can know what happened."

Suspicions of everyone from strangers on the street to the Mexican government are among the side effects of Hugo Wallace's death at 32 at the hands of a Mexico City gang.

It's a fate shared by thousands of Mexicans, especially the well-to-do of Mexico City, who've fueled a booming private-security industry. According to accounts in the Mexican and American news media, Mexico City's wealthy often hire teams of $700-a-month bodyguards, pay $30,000 to $60,000 for armor-plated luxury cars and shop for bulletproof designer jackets at high-end retail stores.

Despite the tears that his mother shed at the first mention of her son's name, speaking about his case has become a form of therapy for the woman with the flipped-up chestnut hair and thin lips.

"She can't understand why the same sun could rise, and her son wasn't on this earth with her," Claudia Wallace said.

A successful advertising entrepreneur with a passion for American football and his daughter, Renee, Hugo Wallace was seen as an "economic opportunity" to the gang of kidnappers.

"Because he was a working man, he was a businessman," Isabel Wallace said. "He never had security. He walked around the city with no security. He was very friendly. He was a very trustful person."

Isabel and Claudia Wallace know that the way to simplify their lives, along with the lives of their family members, would be to leave Mexico.

They can't bring themselves to flee the country or even Mexico City, though, at least not until Hugo Wallace's body is found.

"It's hard, but I want to stay in Mexico until my brother is found," Claudia Wallace said. "This is my place to be, and my mother's place. That's the main thing that we need — my mother ... my brother's daughter, myself — all my family needs a place to go and grieve for my brother and know that he's safe now. Even though he's dead, that he has a safe place to be with us."

(McCormack is a student at Penn State University. This story was reported from Mexico City for a class in international journalism.)

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