U.S. exec abducted in Tijuana

By Diane Lindquist and Anna Cearley
April 7, 2006

TIJUANA – A high-level U.S. executive was abducted here yesterday morning after crossing the border, sending shock waves through a maquiladora industry that for a decade has seemed immune from a wave of kidnappings in Mexico.

Baja California authorities offered sketchy details, but the U.S. Consulate here identified the victim as Yong Hak Kim, a U.S.-born citizen of Korean descent. Kim is a top administrator of Amex Manufacturing in eastern Tijuana.

Kim, who is in his 50s, was intercepted about 7 a.m. while driving to his business, Baja California Attorney General Antonio Martínez Luna said.

Martínez did not provide further details, saying that he didn't want to compromise the investigation. “Our interest when someone is abducted is in rescuing and guaranteeing the life of this person,” he said.

According to a Tijuana police report, however, a witness said that Kim – traveling in a 2004 black Hyundai Santa Fe with California plates – was intercepted by a white Toyota with tinted windows. The report said a man with a large firearm forced Kim into the white car.

State authorities typically define a case as a kidnapping after a ransom has been demanded. Martínez said that as of yesterday afternoon, the case was being classified as an abduction.

Amex Manufacturing is a small operation that offers services, such as forklift rentals, to larger manufacturing operations, said Teodoro Moreno Pérez, who manages Hyundai's giant cargo container and chassis manufacturing operation and uses Amex's services.

Amex is in El Florido Industrial Park, which has a concentration of South Korean businesses, including Hyundai and Samsung.

Ricardo Meniola, Amex purchasing manager, said there would be no comment from the firm about Kim, events surrounding his abduction or the company itself.

“We're not allowed to give information at this moment,” he said.

Although Kim is a U.S. citizen, a representative of the South Korean Consulate in Los Angeles said, “We're going to do our best to help solve this problem.”

Kim lives in the United States, but officials would not say where.

Kidnapping is a highly organized form of crime in Mexico, second only to large-scale drug trafficking.

The targets usually are wealthy or middle-class Mexican businessmen or members of their families. Ransoms can reach into the millions of dollars.

No one knows for certain how many people are kidnapped or abducted each year in Tijuana. Though Mexican-American business people have been targeted, most kidnapping groups appear to avoid foreigners. Some believe that might be due to logistical challenges and the risk of international attention.

Law enforcement often finds itself hampered in solving such cases because close-mouthed families of victims prefer to deal directly with kidnappers.

Martínez said the Attorney General's Office has had success in recent weeks rescuing victims.

“The other day we rescued two people who had been abducted, and two weeks ago we rescued five,” he said.

Foreign executives in Tijuana's 580 maquiladora manufacturing factories – and 2,900 plants across the nation – appear to have avoided kidnappings since August 1996, when a gang swooped down on Sanyo Video Components Vice President Mamoru Konno at a company picnic.

“When he got kidnapped, it was on a weekend at a baseball game in front of all his employees, and they called the police,” said Sanyo executive Alan Foster.

After nine days and the payment of a $2 million ransom by Sanyo, Konno was released unharmed.

“It's distressing,” Foster said. “We've been lucky. There have been a lot of kidnappings, but it seemed the maquiladoras were exempt. Still, we've been waiting for the shoe to fall.”

News of Kim's abduction spread quickly through the industry yesterday, said Luis Alberto Pelayo, executive director of the Tijuana Maquiladora Association.

“Activities are continuing normally, but everyone is very concerned,” he said.

Dale Robinson, president of the Western Maquiladora Trade Association in San Diego, said: “It's hard to believe. It's shocking. I don't think they've had one at any place along the border in many years.”

He said many of the larger maquiladora companies operating in Mexico carry kidnap insurance. In the past, police have escorted foreign executives living in San Diego from the border to their factories.

It's uncertain what effect the abduction might have on foreign investment in Tijuana and Baja California.

The industry is experiencing a regrowth since an economic crisis in the early 2000s prompted a fifth of the factories to close. The state also has been encouraging investment in infrastructure, including a megaport that the government wants developed at Punta Colonet south of Ensenada.

“I don't think this will disrupt investment,” Tijuana Chamber of Commerce President César A. Cázares said. “This is one event that took place and it will turn out all right. And we need to have confidence in the authorities working on this. We know they are doing everything possible.”

The incident, however, highlights a problem that requires more attention from authorities, said Jesús Alberto Capella, president of a state citizens' advisory board that addresses public security concerns.

“Although we need to recognize the efforts they have been making, it's still insufficient,” he said. “The manner and form that this took place shows that acts of total impunity continue to take place and no police patrol was able to prevent this type of situation.”

Diane Lindquist: (619) 293-1812;