QUERETARO, Mexico (Reuters) - Affluent Mexicans, terrified of soaring kidnapping rates, are spending thousands of dollars to implant tiny transmitters under their skin so satellites can help find them tied up in a safe house or stuffed in the trunk of a car.
Kidnapping jumped almost 40 percent between 2004 and 2007 in Mexico, according to official statistics. Mexico ranks with conflict zones like Iraq and Colombia as among the worst countries for abductions.
The recent kidnapping and murder of Fernando Marti, 14, the son of a well-known businessman, sparked an outcry in a country already hardened to crime.
More people, including a growing number of middle-class Mexicans, are seeking out the tiny chip designed by Xega, a Mexican security firm whose sales jumped 13 percent this year. The company said it had more than 2,000 clients.
Detractors say the chip is little more than a gadget that serves no real security purpose.
The company injects the crystal-encased chip, the size and shape of a grain of rice, into clients' bodies with a syringe. A transmitter in the chip then sends radio signals to a larger device carried by the client with a global positioning system in it, Xega says. A satellite can then pinpoint the location of a person in distress.
Cristina, 28, who did not want to give her last name, was implanted along with seven other members of her family last year as a "preventive measure."
"It's not like we are wealthy people, but they'll kidnap you for a watch. ... Everyone is living in fear," she said.
The chips cost $4,000 plus an annual fee of $2,200.
Most kidnappings in Mexico go unreported, many of them cases of "express kidnapping" where the victim is grabbed and forced to withdraw money from automatic cash machines.
Official statistics show 751 kidnappings in Mexico last year, but the independent crime research institute ICESI says the number could have exceeded 7,000.
Xega, based in the central Mexican city of Quererato, designed global positioning systems to track stolen vehicles until a company owner was kidnapped in broad daylight in 2001. Frustrated by his powerlessness to call for help, the company adapted the technology to track stolen people.
Most people get the chips injected into their arms between the skin and muscle where they cannot be seen. Customers who fear they are being kidnapped press a panic button on an external device to alert Xega, which then calls the police.
"Before, they only kidnapped key, well-known economically successful people like industrialists and landowners. Now they are kidnapping people from the middle class," said Sergio Galvan, Xega's commercial director.
Katherine Albrecht, a U.S. consumer privacy activist, says the chip is a flashy, overpriced gadget that only identifies a person and cannot locate someone without another, bigger GPS device that kidnappers can easily find and destroy.
She said fear of kidnapping was driving well-off Mexicans to buy a technology that had yet to prove useful.
"They are a prime target because they've got money and they've got a worry and you can combine those two and offer them a false sense of security which is exactly what this is," she said.
President Felipe Calderon has come under heavy pressure to stamp out violent crime. He hosted a meeting on Thursday of security chiefs and state governors.
Outside of Mexico, U.S. company VeriChip Corp uses similar radio-wave technology to identify patients in critical condition at hospitals or find elderly people who wander away from their homes.
Xega sees kidnapping as a growth industry and is planning to expand its services next year to Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela.
Editing by Peter Cooney