ASUNCION, PARAGUAY - Gunmen abduct the daughter of a former Paraguayan president in a blaze of gunfire. The body of a kidnapped 10-year-old boy is found mutilated. A well-known businesswoman is still missing, long after her family paid a ransom for her release.
Paraguayans have been gripped by a string of high-profile kidnappings that have many worried a crime wave sweeping much of Latin America may now be reaching into this landlocked country of 6 million people. The kidnappings have dominated headlines and provoked a climate of insecurity in this impoverished South American country.
"There is a sense that robberies, assaults and kidnappings are quickly becoming everyday occurrences," said Antonio López, a 30-year-old pharmaceutical salesman.
Paraguay is battling a protracted recession brought on in part by financial troubles in neighboring Argentina.
Paraguay has also been wracked by sporadic upheaval and many consider corruption even more of a scourge than the poverty that afflicts 60 percent of the population.
Paraguayans have followed in detail the story of Cecilia Cubas, the 31-year-old daughter of former President Raúl Cubas. She was kidnapped Sept. 21 on the outskirts of Asunción in a commando-style ambush.
Police and her family say the younger Cubas was grabbed from her car as she was driving near her home, her car pocked with bullets by gunmen who blocked her path.
The operation took seconds, but the shock has continued to ripple through this country. Authorities have reported no leads in the case, and her family said they had one contact with the captors but no ransom request.
Police, meanwhile, have reported no motive in the abduction of the daughter of Cubas, president from August 1998 until March 1999. Cubas was forced to resign when the assassination of his vice president triggered rioting and political turmoil.
On Wednesday, Paraguayans were stunned by the discovery of the body of the 10-year-old son of a tobacco magnate. The boy was taken two days ago as he left his Asunción elementary school.
Reports quoted authorities as saying they found the body of Armín Anibal Riquelme Seif disfigured and severely bruised on the outskirts of Asunción, the third recent high-profile kidnapping.
"We are totally unprotected, we're at the mercy of bandits," cried Armin's mother, Yamili Seif.
In August of 2003, gunmen abducted Gilda Vargas, an Asunción businesswoman. Local reports say her family eventually paid a hefty ransom, but she remains missing.
The kidnappings have put the 14-month-old government of President Nicanor Duarte in motion.
Forced to act while traveling in Europe, Duarte ordered 1,000 more police onto the streets. Wednesday he fired his interior minister, Orlando Fiorotto, and a top police chief while ordering his aides to draw up a new national security plan.
Security experts say the surge in kidnappings in Paraguay also reflects a larger regional trend.
Latin America accounts for 75 percent of the world's abductions, according to London-based business risk consultancy Control Risks Group.
The insurance industry estimates more than 7,500 kidnappings a year in Latin America, but analysts say those statistics and governments' counts aren't reliable because so few kidnappings are reported — only 1 in 10 by some estimates.
"What's happening in Paraguay is not out of step with what's happening in the rest of Latin America. It's spiraling everywhere," said Frank Holder, a New York-based consultant with security firm Kroll Inc.