“HEARST” for Borderland Beat

In the Mexican state of Colima, an American grandmother named María del Carmen López was kidnapped for ransom by masked men. The kidnappers have now stopped calling and the FBI announced a $20,000 reward for information. 

The FBI Announcement

On March 16, 2023, the FBI Los Angeles office announced, in a press release, that they were offering a $20,000 USD reward for information leading to the location of a dual US-Mexican citizen who is believed to have been kidnapped in Colima, Mexico.

The press release reads as follows:

The FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office is seeking the public’s help and is offering a reward of up to $20,000 in exchange for information that leads to the physical location of a woman believed to have been kidnapped earlier this year.

Maria del Carmen Lopez, 63, was kidnapped from her residence in Pueblo Nuevo, Colima, Mexico, on February 9, 2023. Lopez is an American citizen.

Lopez is an Hispanic female with blonde hair and brown eyes. She is 5’2” and, when last seen, weighed approximately 160 lbs. Lopez’s eyeliner is permanent/tattooed.

Anyone with information about Lopez’s physical location should contact their local FBI office or the nearest American Embassy or Consulate. In Los Angeles, the FBI can be reached at 310-477-6565. A tip may also be submitted online at tips.fbi.gov.

The FBI is conducting this investigation jointly with law enforcement authorities in Mexico. 

They also released a poster, in both English and Spanish, which shows photos of Maria del Carmen along with identifying information and the tip line phone number.

Details of the Case 

María del Carmen López was born in Mexico but her family moved to the US when she was less than five years old. She grew up, got married, and raised seven children in America as a dual US-Mexican citizen. 

In 2014, at 54 years old, María and her husband decided to buy a retirement home in Mexico. Her seven children, now adults, continued to live in the US, in both Los Angeles county and Riverside county. 

María and her husband have been moving back and forth, visiting their relatives in Mexico and their relatives in southern California for the last nine years, presumably without issue.

This all changed, however, on February 9, 2023, when armed men entered their home in the town of Pueblo Nuevo, in the Mexican state of Colima. 

María happened to be alone in her home on that day. Her husband had stayed behind in Los Angeles because of a doctor’s visit. Whether the armed men knew María would be alone is unclear. 

Robert Kovacik, from NBC4 Los Angeles, reports that María “was one of the only people in this town – and this is important – to have WiFi, and having WiFi attracted a lot of neighbors, and people who lived nearby, outside of her gates.” 

“Those people would later become eye witnesses when men, wearing masks, showed up to her house and whisked her away in the middle of the day.” 

María’s daughter, Zonia López, told NBC that neighbors saw the men “get off of the truck. They had hoods on their heads, and they exchanged some words. They said they heard my mom […] plead that she was not going to go with them – she would not go.”

Zonia recounted the abduction again to CBS, saying “Two individuals picked her up and another one came out of the vehicle. They had their heads covered and they covered her mouth and that’s when they took her.” CBS writes that a witness saw a group of as many as five men abduct María. 

Word of what happened got back to María’s children. Zonia told 6ABC that she and her siblings immediately tried contacting her. “We all started calling her to see if she would pick up her phone or answer her messenger but we did not hear from her.” 

FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller emphasized that the agency “does not believe it [the abduction] is drug related. We believe that she was targeted for a kidnapping.”

María’s daughter Zonia told CBS that “there was never any sort of [prior] threats. There was never any kind of enemies – anything that would indicate that she was in any kind of trouble.”

The Ransom Demands

Soon after she was taken, María’s family received calls, presumably from her kidnappers, which demanded money in exchange for her release. 

María’s daughter Zonia told Reforma newspaper that the kidnappers “have been asking for money. There have been calls since this started. There was a demand for a very large amount of money – the type of money that we do not have. We are just a normal, hardworking family. We live paycheck to paycheck here. We do not know why [they’d think otherwise] – maybe they think that she can afford it because her children live in the United States.”

The kidnappers sent her family an audio recording in which María can be heard asking her family to pay her ransom “because her life depended on it”, a line likely fed to her by her kidnappers. 

It’s likely that this audio recording was requested by the family, who may be working with FBI hostage negotiators, in order to obtain proof of life, or evidence which demonstrates that a hostage is still alive. 

The FBI spokesperson Laura Eimiller says “the agency has a longstanding policy of not paying ransoms. However, they do help facilitate ransoms if a victim’s family chooses to pay.”

The calls from the kidnappers continued and discussion of payment was ongoing until the beginning of March 2023, when the calls stopped. It has now been two weeks since the kidnappers last made contact with the family. 

Laura Eimiller said the FBI chose to offer the reward money now because “we’re at the point, now, where we felt reward money was in order.” 

Investigating Agencies

The Mexican state Attorney General’s Office (FGE) began María’s abduction on the same day that it occurred, February 9. 

María’s daughter Zonia expressed that although she believes the Mexican government is “handling the case the best they can. They have not given us enough information, enough details. We want to know the information they have, where can we find my mom.” 

“We have been providing them with information, but they are the ones who can actually conduct the interviews, conduct the search. As a family, we are trying to support them [Mexican investigators] one hundred percent, alongside the FBI.” 

The FGE released a statement saying that from the moment they began investigating, they “shared the information they had with federal authorities and also collaborated with U.S. institutions seeking to clarify the facts and safeguard the integrity of the victim.”

On February 27, 2023, the federal Attorney General’s office (FGR) took over the investigation from the state Attorney General’s Office (FGE). 

The Likely Perpetrators

Maria’s daughter Zonia told 6ABC that investigators “have ruled out that the cartels are involved but suspect the incident may be part of an organized kidnapping.” This likely means that the two major cartel organizations in Colima, the Sinaloa Cartel (CDS) and Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) are not involved. 

It is more likely that a small, independent gang from the area is behind the attack. The criminal history of Colima seems to support this theory. 

Just this year, the two men were convicted by the Colima Attorney General’s office for a kidnapping they perpetrated in 2019. 

In that case, the men preyed on a man and his mother who were driving to deliver payroll to their workers. The men abducted the victims and demanded money in exchange for releasing them. Eventually, the money was paid and the man was freed. Both men were said to be a part of a local kidnapping gang. A judge sentenced the perpetrators to serve 50 years in prison. 

In 2020, a man was convicted for holding a man for ransom for six days. Authorities say the man did not act alone but was instead the leader of a local kidnapping gang. 

That same year a kidnapping gang made up of four men and one woman were arrested. They are believed to have kidnapped at least 4 men and demanded money from their relatives. 

There are many forms of kidnapping for ransom, the most common of which is known as secuestro exprés, or express kidnapping. 

In an express kidnapping, the target is picked at random from a public space, most often taken from gas stations and shopping center parking lots. After a victim has been nabbed, the kidnappers will demand a ransom from the victim’s relatives. An express kidnapping is primarily characterized by the short amount of time in which a victim is held, usually holding them for a few hours and no more than a couple of days. 

Maria’s kidnapping would not be considered an express kidnapping because she was not taken from a public space and she was held captive for an extended period of time. Her kidnapping does seem consistent with other crimes which took place in the area in recent years, such as the aforementioned. case where the man was held for six days.

A Mother and Grandmother

María del Carmen López is a mother to 7 children and a grandmother to 19 grandchildren. 

One of Maria’s sons, Tony, told CBS News that despite the recent lack of calls from the kidnappers, “we’re doing everything we can, still. We’re not gonna give up on my mom. We’re gonna find her, one way or another.”

Zonia later tearfully addressed the public in a video, trying to encourage people who were considering sending in information, saying “If you’re scared, please think about her. Think about the fear that she’s feeling.” 

You can submit a tip by visiting tips.fbi.gov, calling your local FBI office, or contacting the nearest American embassy. 

Sources: FBI Press Release, FBI English Poster, FBI Spanish Poster, CNN, Reforma, La Jornada, Los Angeles Times, KTLA, NBC4 Los Angeles, Diario de Colima, TV Azteca, CBS News, 6ABC