The Spanish-French true-crime series “A Kidnapping Scandal: The Florence Cassez Affair” is a thought-provoking documentary show that unravels issues of mass corruption and human rights violation. It follows the events in the life of French citizen Florence Cassez, who had been arrested in Mexico on charges of running a kidnapping gang when she was living in the country. For many years, Florence pleaded her innocence in the matter, and the case even got the two countries’ diplomatic relations to grow hostile until horrible truths about the Mexican administration’s involvement started to come out. In the end, “A Kidnapping Scandal: The Florence Cassez Affair” also uses its platform to talk about Mexican citizens who have been caught up in an unjust and corrupt system that still requires a lot of change.
Who Is Florence Cassez, And How Did Her Story Begin?
Florence Cassez spent her childhood and a few years of her adult life in her native France, when her brother met a Mexican woman in France and decided to marry her. Sebastien, the brother, married the woman and settled with her in her native country Mexico. It was through Sebastien that Florence first visited Mexico and learned Spanish, and then moved to Mexico City to work and live there. She was working at her brother’s business when a man named Israel Vallarta made acquaintance with her. Israel, who was very well known to Sebastien, took an immediate interest in Florence, who reciprocated this interest, and the two started to date. According to Florence’s account, after being in a relationship with Israel for some time, she would stay at her boyfriend’s house while looking for an apartment for herself. All seemed to be going well for Florence, as she gradually found a place to stay, and had even started moving her furniture, when suddenly her entire life turned upside down.
Early in the morning of December 9th, 2005, Mexican news channels telecast live scenes from a ranch house, where the Federal Police and Mexico’s top-most security agency, the Agency of Federal Investigation (AFI), conducted a mission to rescue three kidnapped citizens and apprehend the perpetrators of the crime. At the time, Mexico was facing a terrible rise in kidnapping cases to the point that many had made it a regular profession for themselves as a way to extort money. Quite obviously, the AFI’s bust on this particular morning was perceived with great appreciation by the citizens, as the police rescued three individuals—a man, a young boy, and his mother, and also apprehended the perpetrators, a man, and a woman. These two were none other than Israel Vallarta and his girlfriend, Florence Cassez. Although Florence kept saying that she was innocent and had no idea what was going on, Israel admitted that he had held the three hostages but upon the words of someone else. As there was a massive public outrage against the two accused, because Mexicans were desperate to see an end to the kidnapping worry at the time and were ready for any small victory, Israel and Florence were quickly put in prison before their cases would be prepared.
The AFI’s director general at the time, Genaro Garcia Luna, and his team further revealed how Israel had been caught. The investigation had started when a young girl had been kidnapped on her way to school and then released after her mother paid off the ransom money. The mother had contacted the police midway, and the voice of the kidnapper, who used to call to negotiate, had been recorded by the authorities. After she returned home, the girl reported that she had seen a glimpse of the man who had held her captive and could also identify the car that she was kidnapped in. The police authorities conducted a search mission with her by driving her through the same neighborhood where she had been kidnapped. Quite fortunately, they did run into the man who she believed to have kidnapped her, and this was Israel Vallarta himself. The police kept tracking the man and finally arrested him from his ranch house in an operation that was extensively televised. Following the arrest, the AFI’s expert analysis concluded that Israel’s voice matched exactly with that of the kidnapper who used to call the victims’ families in several other kidnapping cases. By their report, there was no doubt that Israel was the boss of a notorious kidnapping gang called the Zodiacs, and his girlfriend, Florence Cassez, had helped him in his crimes.
However, some oddities presented themselves from the very get-go of the case, as the woman who was rescued had initially reported that the two accused had done nothing wrong to them and were held captive in a similar helpless condition as them. Her version changed after a few days, though, as she testified that Florence and her partner were indeed their kidnappers, but coercion was suspected by many. The other hostage who had been rescued, a man in his twenties, maintained that the couple had kidnapped him, and he had then left Mexico to settle in the US and study there. However, when a media outlet covered his story extensively, it was found that the man had not even been admitted to the university where he claimed to be a student. Some suspected that the man had been staged to seem like an innocent victim but was actually not so. But there was no proof until a few journalists started to look into the matter and unearthed something grave.
What Had Actually Happened To Israel And Florence? How Were The AFI Involved?
In their accounts to the journalists and others over many years, Florence and Israel revealed the extent of corruption that the Mexican authorities exercised in this case. In a shocking revelation, it was found out that the couple had actually been arrested not on the 9th but late in the morning of December 8th, from a highway, and had been kept hostage for the next many hours. The IFA, who was behind the whole operation, took them to a building where they tortured Israel in various inhuman ways to make him agree to play the part that they wanted him to play. They threatened to sexually violate his girlfriend while trying to do the same thing to him if he did not corroborate their plan. Finally, his spirit had broken down, and he had agreed to comply with the police. That night, they were driven to the specific ranch house on the Mexico City-Cuernacava highway, along with the three people who were apparently kidnapped (they were real kidnapping victims who had already been rescued by authorities), and the stage was set for a dramatized mission to take place. Several media personnel had received a tip about the incident, and when they rushed to the place to cover the AFI’s brave efforts, the whole plan unfolded, and the public was given a heroic mission that was actually fake and staged. While some of the reporters got a hint of this during their reportage, none of them said anything about it until a month later, when they started to come out with the true story. Luis Cardenas Palomino, who was the head of regional security for the Federal Police and a very trusted associate of Genaro Garcia Luna, was himself present during this televised raid to ensure that Israel gave all the right answers to the questions that the reporters asked him during his arrest. Later on, Israel even said that when he was being tortured by the AFI on the previous night, he had heard shouts of another man who was being tortured as well; this man was, in all probability, the young man who had been posed to be a kidnapped victim the next day, and he was possibly tortured so that he would falsely claim that Israel and Florence had abducted him.
Although Israel Vallarta had been imprisoned without any court sentence, a fate that turned out to be terrible for the man, a case was prepared against Florence Cassez. But the question remained: why would the government administration target these two specific people all of a sudden? The answer to this lay in the very origin of how the couple had met. Florence’s brother, Sebastien, knew Israel from his business, and the two also had another acquaintance through this same business of theirs. An incredibly powerful man named Eduardo Margolis was and still is a respected figure in the Jewish communities of Mexico City who would often provide Jewish families with ransom money when their relatives would be kidnapped. However, with alleged ties to Mossad and an attitude of tolerance towards no opposition, Margolis was definitely tied in with a lot of illegal activities. On the front, the man was a rich businessman with a company of armored cars with high-ranking clients that included government officials. In order to start a business, Sebastien had asked for Margolis’ investment, to which the man readily agreed, as it was a profitable venture. However, Margolis did not pay Sebastien his due over a long period, and the latter was angry about it. He now told Margolis that he wanted to leave the business and wanted all the money that he was supposed to get, but the man did not really care. Sebastien discussed this problem with Israel, who was by now his brother-in-law (not formally, as Florence and Israel did not marry), and Israel suggested that they take some action against the partner. A few of Margolis’ cars were with Sebastien at the time, and he refused to return them until he was paid his due. Together with Israel’s help, he hid the cars at a place only they knew of, and this angered the dangerous Margolis tremendously. He threatened to kill Sebastien’s family, and when all of it fell on deaf ears, he decided to take action on his own.
Due to his influential powers and also his business, Margolis contacted the AFI head, Genaro, and led them to Israel and Florence. Margolis’ intention was to create pressure on Sebastien by getting his family arrested, but he himself did not realize how far the matter would go. At the time, the AFI had been desperately looking for a way to cleanse its public image and garner respect for itself from the masses. Sometime earlier, a criminal case had rocked Mexico in which the leader of a crime gang had interrogated and killed members of his rival gang on camera, and the video clearly showed that some members of the AFI had been involved in handing over the gang members to their rival leader. This, and the general ineffectiveness of the police in controlling the terrible crime rate in the country, had tarnished the image of the AFI in the eyes of the public, and Genaro would go to any extent to clean this up. He and the rest of the police department planned the whole act of putting on this entire fiasco in which Israel and his girlfriend would be arrested on live TV. While in prison, Israel had admitted that through his business of buying and selling used cars, he had made an acquaintance with a man who took cars from him for kidnapping. Gradually, he had gotten involved with the crime as well, as he would be given the responsibility of taking care of the kidnapped victims. But he did maintain his innocence over the accusation of being the leader of the Zodiac crime gang.
How Did Florence’s Case Lead To Diplomatic Tension Between The Two Countries? How Was She Finally Freed?
While a case was being prepared against Florence Cassez, her family and other people in France stated how the woman was innocent and was only being framed by the corrupt government. By this time, Florence had also spoken out about how they were arrested by the police a day before it was officially stated, and on one occasion she said this via a phone call to a news show in which Genaro Garcia Luna was himself present as a guest. Great support for Florence gathered back in France and, through her parents’ connections, the matter reached the French consulate and then the French government. The case became so high-profile within a short time that the erstwhile President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, got directly involved with it. At the time, the French government was trying to settle a deal with Mexico to get Florence transferred back to her homeland. This was legally allowed by the Strasbourg Convention, which the two countries had signed, and the Mexican government promised to keep its word. However, when the court in Mexico ruled a sixty-one-year prison term for Florence, and the maximum prison sentence in France was twenty years, the government decided to cancel their plan to let Florence leave. This created immediate political rift between the two countries, especially since Nicolas Sarkozy was present in Mexico at the time, holding talks with President Felipe Calderon. In a couple of years, a special year-long program called “The Year of Mexico in France” was supposed to be held to commemorate the history of friendship between the two countries. Days before the beginning of this festival, Sarkozy publicly announced that France would dedicate this entire year-long program to Florence Cassez, who was still bravely fighting unjust treatment in Mexico. This expectedly riled up Mexicans, and the Calderon government immediately announced that it would not participate in such a program.
The general understanding of what seemed to have happened during this time is that Genaro Garcia Luna had advised President Calderon to not release the French woman from the country. During Calderon’s rule, Genaro Luna had been made the Secretary of Public Security of Mexico, and he was one of the closest aides to the President. The man, who definitely had corrupt intentions, did not take lightly the fact that Florence had directly called him and his team out for malpractice on a live TV news show. In order to intensify the case against Florence and to prove her guilt in the case, a series of unlawful arrests were made, all of which led to inhuman torture of the men to coerce them into telling the AFI’s made-up story. The arrested men, all blood relatives of Israel Vallarta, were brutally thrashed and tortured for days to make them fit into the character of gang members, as the police wanted to prove that Israel ran the Zodiac gang with his cousins and nephews. One of these men, who later even died in police custody, was forced to falsely say that he knew Florence very well because she was very involved in their gang of kidnapping people while all this was recorded on camera. This footage was presented as proof of Florence’s wrongdoing, even though it is quite clear from the video that it was edited and that the man was being forced to say all of this. Although all these corrupt activities of the police were found out later on, at the time, this created pressure on Florence once again.
Finally, around 2012, the political scenario of both countries changed as both nations now had new presidents. Francois Hollande now held talks with Enrique Nieto over the matter of Florence Cassez, and the matter was brought back into discussion once again. The woman’s lawyers presented her case at the Mexican Supreme Court and based the case on the violation of human rights. At this time, an eminent judge of Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice, Arturo Zaldivar, came up with a project termed “The Corrupting Effect,” in which he mentioned how the court had found innumerable instances of violations of human rights in the way Florence had been treated by Mexican police, and also the fact that her arrest had also been made under totally unlawful conditions and with accusations that were totally baseless and all fabricated by the AFI. Although this plan was at first rejected by the bench of judges, it was finally approved the second time, and Florence Cassez was immediately released from prison and flown back to France. In her interviews, Florence talks of how shocked she was to see that it was the AFI who had dragged her into prison wrongly and that it was the same AFI now providing protection to her as she was taken from the prison to the airport.
‘A Kidnapping Scandal: The Florence Cassez Affair’ Ending Explained – What Was Israel’s Fate? What Was The Aftermath Of The Case?
Although Florence had found her way out of the country’s unjust administrative system, the fate of Israel Vallarta was not so satisfying. The primary reason why Florence could be set free was because she was a French citizen, and because the French government directly pursued the matter diplomatically, but Israel had nobody to fight for him. Many commenters note how very few of the people who rallied their support for Florence spoke out against the misfortune of Israel, who was systematically tortured by his own country. The man was never given a sentence or put up in court to be tried for his crimes and instead has been kept in prison ever since his arrest. Only a few years ago, political activist Mary Sainz fell in love with the man while fighting for his cause on the outside, and the two married shortly after. Mary still advocates for her husband’s innocence and demands his release, but that has not yet happened.
However, many other revelations have been made about the case since then that are even more shocking. The AFI had justified their arrest of Israel based on two very specific pieces of evidence—first, the young girl who had been kidnapped and released had apparently identified Israel while the police drove her around the area where she had been kidnapped; and second, the AFI’s expert opinion that Israel’s voice matched with that of the kidnappers in several other cases. While the AFI had come up with this opinion, they mentioned that it was based on another expert opinion, a neutral one, and not that of the AFI, which clearly stated that Israel’s voice did not match that of the kidnappers. Perhaps more shockingly, the young girl later testified how it was the AFI officers who influenced her words during the time, and the whole story of how she had identified Israel in his car never actually happened and had been made up by the AFI. The AFI director general and then Secretary of Public Security, Genaro Garcia Luna, was arrested in 2019 for having close ties with the Sinaloa cocaine cartel and has been imprisoned in the USA since then. His close aide and the head of Regional Security of the Federal Police, Luis Cardenas Palomino, was also arrested in 2021 for ordering the official torture of four people in 2012 when the administration had tried to prove that Israel’s family members made up the Zodiac gang.
Although there has been an outcry and protest against the government’s decision to free Israel from prison using the same project that had earlier freed Florence, the officials state things differently. The same bench of judges who had passed the project in Florence’s case argued that Israel actually has three different charges of kidnapping against him, which means that even if the project is used to clear him of one, the other two charges cannot be cleared as there is no proof of wrongdoing in the gathering of evidence in those cases. Supporters of Israel’s freedom make it clear, though, that the other two kidnapping cases that have been mentioned were charged against the man only after the AFI’s investigation began with the young girl’s kidnapping case. The evidence for this case itself was fabricated and gathered by totally unlawful means, and therefore there should never have been an investigation into the two other cases, which they claim are false accusations as well. The matter stays unsettled in this very position, as Israel is still in prison, hoping to be free someday. Perhaps the point of the matter is that public opinion in the case still weighs against the accused, and it increased further after the release of Florence Cassez. Although Florence was a foreigner who had to be let go to avoid bad foreign relations, the administration is perhaps too cautious to let Israel free as well, as that might quickly turn public opinion against them. However, it cannot be denied that, whether the Florence Cassez affair was the right thing or not, the Mexican masses still have not gotten fair justice against the treacherous kidnappings that took place during the time period or the innumerable criminal activities that threaten their lives even today.
“A Kidnapping Scandal: The Florence Cassez Affair” is a Crime Documentary series streaming on Netflix.