The soap operas —seven-minute long instalments— are available on the internet featuring storylines about different types of kidnapping. 

New soap opera, comic and apps being used to tackle kidnappings in Mexico

A new soap opera, comic and app are the latest weapons being used to tackle the epidemic of kidnappings in Mexico.

Experts have worked with victims and their loved-ones – as well as kidnappers - to develop innovative ways to stop the crime as it remains a major issue in the country, affecting thousands of people.

Kidnapping remains shrouded in taboo and victims and the general population feel uncomfortable talking about it, so it often remains unreported and there are no reliable official statistics. The public often have limited faith in the ability of the police to deal with kidnappings.

The Telenovelas and app are designed to encourage people of different generations to talk about kidnapping and plan how to face the threat of this crime.

In Mexico a kidnapping is only recognised by law when families receive a ransom call, but many do not get contacted because it is often related to a series of other crimes such as sex trafficking, slave labour and organ harvesting.

The aim of the three-year study, part-funded by the Newton Fund, is to help people think about how they would respond if they or someone they knew was kidnapped, and to give them strategies to cope with the danger.

The project, M.A.K.E – Mobile Solutions Against the Kidnapping Epidemic - is led by academics Dr Conor O’Reilly from the University of Leeds and Dr Ernesto Schwartz-Marin from the University of Exeter and is supported by the Newton Fund. The team interviewed young people held in juvenile detention centres convicted of kidnapping offences.

The research team spoke to relatives of those who have been kidnapped and disappeared in Mexico’s Northern borderlands, asylum-seekers who have sought refuge from kidnap-risk and those activists who assist them. They also spoke to wealthy people who relocated north across the border to insulate their families from kidnap-risk in Mexico; smuggled migrants who are exposed to kidnapping at an almost industrial level and cross-border private security consultants who guard clients from kidnap risk. Also participating in the research were local businesses and other groups who had confronted the threat of kidnapping and law enforcement officials.

In Mexico researchers conducted over 60 interviews with victims of kidnapping, NGOS, authorities, policemen and perpetrators in Mexico City, Morelos, Veracruz, Tamaulipas and Guerrero to understand how to prevent kidnapping and grave security threats, and to understand how bands of kidnappers operate.

The soap operas —seven-minute long instalments— are available on the internet featuring storylines about different types of kidnapping. Researcher hope they will help tackle the silence around the issue when families watch them together. The telenovela, called Amor Secuestrado (‘Kidnapped Love’), is coproduced with the Mexican grassroots filmmakers, VerdeAzul Producciones.

The comic, from the artist Maldito Perrito, is available on Instagram, and will also be shared during workshops in schools and universities. Those involved in the project hope they will appeal to teenagers who will then share the messages with their families.

The app, designed to act as a form of emergency security planning with an integrated panic button, allows people to notify their friends and family if they are kidnapped. It allows families to put together a security plan if the worst happens and assign roles in advance so they can form an emergency response committee and enact pre-arranged actions. The app also acts as a place to gather data about kidnapping.

Dr Schwartz-Marin, who is an assistant director of the Global Systems Institute, said: “The authorities do not seem to have the resources to deal with potentially thousands more cases if the definition of kidnapping was expanded. But if we don’t think differently about kidnapping only those who are wealthy will be supported, and other people who never receive a ransom call, or have contact with kidnappers, will continue to be left to their own devices.

“These resources help people plan ahead, tackle taboos and talk about what is often unthinkable, but happens more often in Mexico than it should. They will help give relatives greater support.”

Dr O’Reilly said: “During our participatory workshops in Mexico we found out that 85 per cent of our interviewees and research participants did not want to even think that kidnapping could happen to them, and thus refused to plan for such state of events. Kidnapping is indeed a challenging topic. However, we hope the telenovelas provide a suitable medium to break taboos around kidnapping and incentivise the creation of security plans to combat insecurity by blending education with entertainment.”

Videogames linked with the soap will be launched in the coming months to help the research team to test and fine tune the app.

Date: 22 July 2020

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