By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
On Thursday, Aug. 25, the international streaming platform Netflix released a controversial true-crime series titled “A Kidnapping Scandal: The Florence Cassez Affair,” which tried to clear the name of the French citizen Florence Cassez and her longtime Mexican boyfriend Israel Vallarta Cisneros, both of whom were arrested in 2005 and charged with possession of illegal firearms, involvement in organized crime and a long string of kidnappings — including that of an 11-year-old boy — across Mexico City.
The exact details of the arrests of the couple are foggy since they were apparently subsequently forced by members of Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency (AFI) to “reenact” an absurd staging of their apprehension for a television news team.
The trials of Cassez was long and drawn out, and the trial of Vallarta Cisneros is still ongoing.
The conviction of Cassez, who was first given a sentence of 96 years for her crimes (which in 2009 was reduced to 76 years and later to 60 years) led to major diplomatic and political fallout between France and Mexico and was the focus of international tabloid headlines for years to come.
Finally, in 2013, while many people in Mexico were adamantly opposed to her release, Cassez’s conviction was overturned by the Mexican Supreme Court on technicalities related to the arrest and tribunal process (some say unjustly) and she was released, returning home within hours to her native France.
But in the eyes of a large majority of Mexicans, particularly those effected directly or indirectly by a spate of kidnappings at that time, Cassez is still seen as a villain, a foreigner who came to Mexico, got involved in a vicious kidnapping ring and then cruelly mocked and tortured the prisoners that she and her alleged gang of Los Zodicacos had taken hostage, only to get away with her crimes because she was a foreigner, and a pretty French girl at that.
Indeed, while Cassez is now a free woman with a young family in France, she is still under the yoke of an alleged criminal history and a stubborn negative image as a purported kidnapper who got away with it that has haunted her for the last 17 years.
That the main objective of the Netflix documentary series — funded in large part by the French government — is to repaint Cassez’s image as a victim rather than a criminal is no secret, and along with casting doubt on the alleged guilt of Cassez, the documentary also tries to vindicate her boyfriend, Vallarta Cisneros, who is still in a Mexican prison awaiting trial on a number of kidnapping charges.
In order to fully understand the Cassez and Vallarta Cisneros kidnapping cases, it is important to first put the events leading up to their arrests into historic context.
In 2005, Mexico was considered to be the country with the second-highest number of kidnappings worldwide (just behind Colombia), with an average of about 3,000 a year, according to the international risk-consulting firm Kroll Inc.
Most of those kidnappings took place in Mexico City, and a disproportionately large share of those kidnappings were directed at members of the Mexican Jewish community, mostly well-heeled businessmen and their families.
In trying to present Cassez and Vallarta Cisneros as “innocent victims of a corrupt Mexican legal system,” the five-episode Netflix documentary diverts blame wherever possible, including against the well-respected Mexican businessman Eduardo Cuauhtémoc Margolis Soból, who, among his many successful companies, heads up an international security and armored vehicle corporation.
There is no denying that Margolis Soból knew both Cassez and Vallarta Cisneros, as well as the top brass at the AFI, but that is where the majority of the allegations of the Netflix doc-series cease to be accurate.
Margolis Soból did at one time share a short-lived business venture in the beauty industry with Sebastien Cassez, Florence’s brother. And, he crossed paths with Vallarta on occasions, who had long been suspected of being involved in kidnappings.
Because he sold (and continues to sell) armored vehicles and other security equipment to both the government and to private individuals, Margolis Soból had, understandably, contacts with members of the AFI, Mexican police and security forces, including those involved in the arrests of Cassez and Vallarta Cisneros.
And because his own wife had been taken hostage by a kidnapping ring shortly after their marriage, Margolis Soból, who spent a large segment of his youth in Israel, where, allegedly he worked in national intelligence and security, created a network of specialists to help protect members of the Jewish community in Mexico against kidnappings and other acts of extortion.
Working both with Mexican government authorities and independently, he dedicated a large part of his time and efforts to the goal of protecting and supporting the Jewish community in Mexico, notably, without ever charging for these services.
A former professional boxer, Margolis Soból does have a powerful and domineering presence, but to portray him as intimidating or threatening — as the Netflix series does and as several newspapers in Mexico that have retaken the story since the series’ release have done — is a clear misrepresentation.
It is important to note that, unlike most of the “players” in the Netflix series, Margolis Soból has never been arrested, charged or found guilty of any crime, either in Mexico or abroad.
He is, for all intents and purposes, an upstanding, law-abiding member of the local Jewish and business communities and of Mexican society as a whole.
On Friday, Sept. 2, Pulse News Mexico sat down with Margolis Soból in his offices in Mexico City’s upscale Colonia Polanco.
Annoyed by the recent barrage of press coverage regarding his person and the fresh efforts to try to exculpate Vallarta Cisneros, Margolis Soból said he had no interest in responding to the “ridiculous allegations” that he was involved in any way in the controversial arrest of the couple, nor their persecution during their respective trials.
However, he did stress that releasing Israel Vallarta, who is currently still being held without sentence in Mexico’s high-security Altiplano Prison, would be dangerous.
“They can make up all the stories that they want to try to vindicate Vallarta Cisneros,” Margolis Soból said.
“They can say that I hunted him down because of two cars he took of mine, which is an absurd allegation, and one that I don’t want to waste time responding to. But the fact of the matter is that Israel Vallarta Cisneros is a danger to society, a career kidnapper who will no doubt return to his old ways if he is released. And that is what concerns me.”
And that concern is not unfounded.
López Obrador then went on to call the arrest of Vallarta Cisneros and Cassez, “a media montage” carried out by then-Director of Mexican Federal Investigation Agency (AFI) Genaro García Luna (currently in prison in the United States since December 2019 on charges of conspiracy and association with the Sinaloa Drug Cartel) and his close associate Luis Cárdenas Palomino (also in prison, in this case in Mexico, on allegations of corruption and conspiracy), who was on hand at the time of the arrest restaging.
Also, Mexico’s current Supreme Court is now reviewing the use of “preventive detention” (being held indefinitely without bail until a verdict is reached), particularly in the case of nonviolent crimes (which would not apply in the case of Vallarta Cisneros) or proven acts of torture against the accused, on the grounds of potential human rights violations.
Margolis Soból at no point in the interview tried to defend either García Luna nor Cardenas Palomino. Nor did he argue against the Supreme court’s decision to overturn Cassez’s sentence.
He simply warned against Vallarta Cisneros’ release from prison.
According to Margolis Soból, the reason that Vallarta Cisneros has yet to be tried is that he has, for the last 17 years, worked to delay his own trials to avoid a judgement.
“Vallarta Cisneros has changed lawyers more than five times (since his arrest in 2015) and has carried out an elongated strategy of delay in the courts because he knows that he will be found guilty,” Margolis Sóbol said.
“He is constantly asking the public prosecutor for nonexistent evidence, such as false witnesses that can never be found, so that the case does not go to trial.”
Margolis Soból went on to note that two kidnap victims of Vallarta Cisneros have already testified against him, saying that they recognize him as one of the persons who held them hostage. Also, he said, the victims have identified the two houses, properties in the name of Vallarta Cisneros, a house in Xochimilco and a ranch in Las Chinitas (both in southern Mexico City,) where they were held as hostages.
“In a search of the Las Chinitas ranch, a music cassette was found that one of the victims was carrying when he was kidnapped,” Margolis Soból added, emphasizing that the evidence against Vallarta Cisneros is solid and undeniable.
“Moreover, two sheets of paper with instructions on how to snatch one of the victims were found at the Las Chinitas ranch.”
Finally, Margolis Soból pointed out that while AMLO may want to release Vallarta Cisneros for political reasons, the fact remains that in Mexico, “there is (still) a division of powers,” which means that the executive branch cannot simply order the courts to release him.
Moreover, Margolis Soból said, Vallarta Cisneros is still facing at least five trials for alleged kidnappings, two of which are unrelated to the arrest at the Chinitas ranch.
Releasing him at this point, Margolis Soból said, is paramount to adding more lawlessness to a nation already facing a surge in violent criminal acts.