22 August 2008
Affluent Mexicans worried by soaring kidnapping rates are spending thousands of dollars to implant tiny transmitters under their skin so satellites can help find them even when stuffed in the boot of a car.
Kidnapping jumped almost 40% between 2004 and 2007 in Mexico, according to official statistics. Mexico ranks with conflict zones like Iraq and Colombia as one of the worst countries for abductions. The recent kidnapping and murder of Fernando Marti, 14, the son of a well-known businessman, sparked an outcry in a country already hardened to crime.
More people, including a growing number of middle-class Mexicans, are seeking to have a microchip implanted under their skin by Xega, a Mexican security firm whose sales jumped 13% this year. The company claims to have more than 2,000 clients.
Tagged and tracked
Detractors say that the chip is little more than a gimmick that serves no real security purpose. The company injects the crystal-encased chip, the size and shape of a grain of rice, into clients’ bodies with a syringe.
A transmitter in the chip communicates with a larger GPS-enabled device carried by the client, Xega says. That gadget reports its location to the company when the owner presses a panic button, something the device could arguably do without an under-skin chip.
Katherine Albrecht, a US consumer privacy activist, says the chip is a flashy, overpriced gadget that only identifies a person and cannot locate someone without another, bigger GPS device that kidnappers can easily find and destroy.
She says fear of kidnapping was driving well-off Mexicans to buy an unproven technology. “They are a prime target because they’ve got money and they’ve got a worry and you can combine those two and offer them a false sense of security which is exactly what this is,” she says.
Cristina, 28, who did not want to give her last name, was implanted along with seven other members of her family last year as a preventive measure. “It’s not like we are wealthy people, but they’ll kidnap you for a watchï¿½Everyone is living in fear,” she says. The chips cost US$4,000 plus an annual fee of $2,200.
Most people get the chips injected into their arms between the skin and muscle where they cannot be seen.
Most kidnappings in Mexico go unreported, many of them cases of “express kidnapping” where the victim is grabbed and forced to withdraw money from automatic cash machines. Official statistics show 751 kidnappings in Mexico last year, but the independent crime research institute ICESI says the true number could have exceeded 7,000.
Xega, based in the central Mexican city of Quererato, designed global positioning systems to track stolen vehicles until a company owner was kidnapped in broad daylight in 2001. The firm sees kidnapping as a growth industry in South America and plans to expand its services next year to Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela.