Felix Against the Barbarians
On December 10, 2008, Felix was having an early dinner in Saltillo, capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila, about three hours south of the Texas border. Americans know Saltillo best for the traditional clay tiles it exports to high-end kitchen designers and interior decorators; but the biggest employers, General Motors and Chrysler, operate a pair of automobile assembly plants. They have made the region relatively prosperous, fostering the growth of an upper-middle class, stirring patronage in the better eating establishments, and creating a boom in another industry: hostage taking.
One of the town’s best restaurants, El Mesón Principal del Norte, specializes in spit-roasted meat. Felix had ordered the goat. An American citizen born in Cuba and based in Miami, he was a consultant whose work took him to Mexico at least 20 times a year. He was dining with three associates, speaking fluent Spanish—the sort of scene our world-friendly college likes to imagine—when one of his two cell phones rang. The call came from a friend named Pilar Valdez, head of security for the Saltillo Industrial Group. He was being held by Los Zetas, the most vicious drug cartel in a nation dominated by cartels.
While the Zetas and other Mexican gangs have grown rich from smuggling narcotics and marijuana into the United States, in the past decade or so, kidnapping has provided a growing alternative revenue stream. Almost half of all Mexicans say they have been affected by kidnapping—having been taken themselves, having had a relative or friend abducted, or having received scam calls saying a loved one is being held. Relatives of victims often receive a finger or an ear to hurry negotiations along. The kidnappers go where the money is, focusing on the nation’s business class.
Which is why Felix was in Mexico. A security expert, he had given a pair of lectures to local businessmen, telling them how to respond in the event of a kidnapping. Keep calm, he told them. Don’t offer too much money. Felix knew what he was talking about; he had been instrumental in the release of some 100 hostages, according to the Houston-based firm he worked with, ASI Global. A “response consultant” with more than two decades’ experience, Felix was at the top of a growing profession called K&R, kidnapping and ransom.
Soon after Pilar Valdez called him, the man’s son came into the restaurant and sat at another table. Felix talked to the young man, then left the restaurant briefly and returned looking shaken. After a visit to the bathroom to splash cold water on his face, Felix rejoined his dinner companions. He handed over his laptop, shoulder bag, and a cell phone—the one he used to call his family. “If I’m not back soon,” he said, “call these numbers.” He left a card with the contact information for ASI and for his wife, Lourdes. Then he stood out on the curb for half an hour.
Shortly after seven o’clock, two vehicles drove up. Pilar Valdez sat in one of them, a white Jeep Cherokee. He had been badly beaten. One of the men inside the SUV came out and put his arm around Felix. They talked briefly, and Felix got into the car. An hour later, Valdez was dropped off with a few pesos for transportation. Felix has not been seen since.
There is more to Felix’s story, entailing the usual corrupt officials, American diplomats, the FBI, the toxic outward flow of drugs to the States and the reverse flow of guns; Felix’s wife; their five grown children; his music and friendship and the scholarship in his name that reflects the best of the College.
But as you shall see, Felix himself provided the moral of the story. He once wrote to friends that his work in kidnapping and ransom was to fight “barbarism.” At a time when the purpose of the liberal arts is under challenge, Felix gives us an answer: a liberal education should nurture civilized souls like Felix Batista who can cross boundaries and carry a light into a barbarous world.