The Art of Ordeal

Kidnaped, tortured and nearly killed in a Mexican hellhole, a Phoenix entrepreneur wants to teach others about the perils of doing business south of the border

Ken Krusensterna knew he was in trouble the moment he knocked on the front door of Gabriela Leyva's house and it swung open from his touch. She had told him many times that she kept the door and the gate locked because she lived alone.

It was 8:30 at night, November 4, 1998. He was already nervous, though he says now he wasn't sure why. He had driven from the Harlingen, Texas, airport to a motel in McAllen, where he expected to spend the night. The next morning, after breakfast with an executive from Zenith, he planned to drive to the office of his trucking firm across the Mexican border in Reynosa. But as he neared the international bridge, his cell phone rang. It was Leyva.

On paper, Olademis Gabriela Leyva Ortiz owned 51 percent of Ken's firm. Mexican law requires that Mexican nationals be the majority owner of a business. Leyva got a nice salary and a car to be the silent partner, and about all she did was serve as a conduit for government paperwork. And that was why she had called: She needed Krusensterna to come to her house right away to sign some forms demanded by the Mexican equivalent of the IRS or they were going to shut the business down the next day.

Alfredo Torres Zumaya, the alleged ringleader of the kidnap plot.
Alfredo Torres Zumaya, the alleged ringleader of the kidnap plot.
Krusensterna was held for two weeks, strapped naked to a chair in this house.
Krusensterna was held for two weeks, strapped naked to a chair in this house.

Her insistence put Krusensterna on edge, but he exited on the bridge and drove into Mexico. A few minutes later, the phone rang again. It was Leyva, wondering how close he was.

"It was almost like a wife wondering where you're at, what time are you going to be here," he says now. "I felt real uneasy about that."

He parked his rental car on the street outside her little stucco house. She told him she'd leave the gate open, which he found odd, and when the door practically opened by itself, he turned to run.

Immediately, there was someone on his back, pushing him in the door, and he found himself facing three men dressed like ninjas, black ski masks hiding their faces. One held a long knife, the other two held guns, and when a hand came up with a gun in it, Krusensterna batted it away and it went off. His hand continued on to the gunman's jaw, knocking him to the floor. He grabbed a chair by the leg and swung that at the next man, but the next thing he knew, he was face down on the floor, wondering whose blood was washing over the tile.

It was his own; he still had too much adrenaline pumping through his body to realize the bullet had grazed his forehead.

The gunmen were all over him. They duct-taped his wrists and ankles together behind his back, shoved a filthy rag in his mouth and then wrapped tape tightly around his entire face, blinding and gagging him. They were kicking him, damn near ripping his fingers off as they stole his rings. Then they left him face down on the floor, motionless, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

Ken Krusensterna had just become a victim of the burgeoning Mexican kidnaping industry. He would he held for two weeks, chained naked to a reclining lawn chair without food or water, sitting in his own wastes, plagued by insects, until Mexican police kicked the door in and shot up the house where he was imprisoned.

After his rescue, Krusensterna spent less than a week in a hospital on the Texas side of the border, then returned to his wife in Dallas. Within two weeks, he fled Texas altogether and moved to Phoenix. After 60 Minutes II sought him out for a story it was researching on Mexican kidnapings, Krusensterna realized he had a new calling. He became part of another growth industry, namely educating Americans on the perils of doing business in Mexico.

The U.S. Consulate in Mexico City reports that 43 U.S. citizens were murdered in Mexico last year, the biggest number of them (18) in the border town of Tijuana; 28 were murdered in 1998; 25 in 1997.

According to executives at Control Risks Group, a Virginia-based firm specializing in negotiating crises situations such as kidnapings, there were more than 200 kidnapings for ransom last year in Mexico, more than 400 the year before. There are no statistics on how many of those involved U.S. citizens. And those conservative figures do not include the epidemic of "express" kidnapings in which unsuspecting people are snatched off the street or held in bogus taxicabs, occasionally killed while their captors clean out their bank accounts at ATMs.

According to the U.S. Consulate, there were nine such "taxicab crimes," assaults and/or robberies reported against U.S. citizens in Mexico City alone last year, 35 in the two years before. In several scandalous kidnaping or express kidnaping cases against U.S. or Mexican citizens, Mexican police have been found to be perpetrators in the crimes. In a 1998 case that was widely reported in the international press, 44 police officers in Mexico City were arrested as members of a kidnaping ring. In another, the heads of that city's anti-kidnaping police unit were themselves held as hostages.

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