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Activist: Kidnapping, killings of call centre workers in Mexico has been happening for years

A woman places a stem of flowers on the facade of the Attorney General's office during a protest against the disappearance of Debanhi Escobar and other women who have gone missing, in Mexico City, Friday, April 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo) A woman places a stem of flowers on the facade of the Attorney General's office during a protest against the disappearance of Debanhi Escobar and other women who have gone missing, in Mexico City, Friday, April 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

A missing-persons activist in western Mexico said Wednesday that call centre workers have been going missing in Mexico since at least 2017, and that authorities have done little to solve the cases.

Activist Hector Flores says authorities' failure to investigate those disappearances helped set the stage for what authorities believe was a mass kidnap-killing of eight young call centre employees last month.

The violent Jalisco cartel operates call centres in the western state of the same name; the centres target Americans in timeshare frauds. The cartel is suspected of killing people who try to quit working at these call centres.

""There have been similar cases," with one person going missing in 2017, another in 2019 and two in 2021, said Flores, the co-founder of the volunteer search group "Light and Hope."

Three of those victims worked at call centres that sell timeshares, said Flores, whose own son has been missing in a separate case since 2021.

A U.S. official confirmed that authorities suspect that the eight workers kidnapped in mid-May -- and whose bodies were identified Tuesday -- had been working at cartel-run call centre, that they were targeted when they tried to leave the jobs and that similar slayings may have happened previously. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Flores said a lack of prosecution and investigation in past cases has paved the way for the killings to continue.

"If investigations had been done properly as they should have been done, I think they could have prevented the tragedy we're seeing now," Flores said.

In the most recent case, relatives of the youths reported them missing in late May after they did not return from work in an office near the western city of Guadalajara. Suspicions rose last week when heaps of hacked-up body parts were found in plastic bags.

Forensic examiners in the western state of Jalisco said in a statement Monday that tests had confirmed the bodies belonged to the missing call centre workers.

A total of six men and two women were reported missing from May 20 to May 22, but the forensic examiners did not mention the number of confirmed identities. There had been doubts about whether one of the youths was among the bodies found.

Officials have confirmed that the cartel operates call centres that scam money from Americans and Canadians through fake offers to buy their timeshares.

Jalisco officials did not offer a motive in the killings of the workers, all but two of whom were under 30. But the U.S. official said that authorities suspect the youths were killed by the Jalisco cartel after they tried to quit their jobs.

The Jalisco cartel, known by its initials as the CJNG, is famous for its ruthless treatment of supposed traitors, informants or turncoats. For those who have worked for the cartel, knowingly or unknowingly, it appears to be an unwritten rule that the only way out of the gang is death or prison.

Call centres are a major source of employment in Mexico for young people or migrants who may have learned English in the United States, but who have returned to Mexico.

The timeshare fraud came to light in April, when the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against members or associates of the Jalisco New Generation cartel who apparently ran a similar operation in the Pacific coast resort of Puerto Vallarta, also located in Jalisco state, the gang's home turf.

Brian E. Nelson, the U.S. under secretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement in April that the "CJNG's deep involvement in timeshare fraud in the Puerto Vallarta area and elsewhere, which often targets elderly U.S. citizens and can defraud victims of their life savings, is an important revenue stream supporting the group's overall criminal enterprise."

The scammers contacted people seeking to sell timeshares in Puerto Vallarta properties.

In a 2023 alert, the FBI said sellers were contacted via email by scammers who said they had a buyer lined up, but the seller needed to pay taxes or other fees before the deal could go through. Apparently, once the money was paid, the deals evaporated.

The FBI report said that in 2022, the agency's Internet Crime Complaint Centre "received over 600 complaints with losses of approximately US$39.6 million from victims contacted by scammers regarding timeshares owned in Mexico." Top Stories


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