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Mexico - Rich kids
From left, sisters Andrea 3, and Renata, 4, with their friend Camila 3, walk away after visiting Santa Claus in Mexico City. (Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald)
Wealth hazard
LATIN AMERICA'S RICH AND FAMOUS CHILDREN LIVE IN A CLOISTERED WORLD OF AFFLUENCE AND PRIVILEGED ACCESS TO SCHOOL, SPORTS AND TRAVEL -- SHADOWED BY THE OMNIPRESENT SPECTER OF ABDUCTION FOR RANSOM.

MEXICO CITY - A rail-thin 30-something mother in blue jeans cradles her baby in her arms while shopping for Christmas toys in a posh department store -- shadowed by a bodyguard with suit, tie and earphone, tending the baby's stroller.

Elsewhere in the city, another mother has hired a department store Santa for nochebuena, Christmas Eve. The tab -- $100 -- spares dad and the driver the duty of donning the costume. "To see their smiles," she says, beaming at her toddlers, "I'd pay anything."

Or consider the Maymón sisters. Among Mexico's best girl golfers, they go to a proper private school, have skied Vail, Colo., and weekend on the finest greens in the Americas.

"It's fun. You make great friends," says Maria, 13, who with Giovana, 11, has competed at the Publix Junior Golf Classic in Doral.

Peek behind the walls and into the gated communities of the nation's elite, here in Mexico City, and their children lead a rarefied life of exclusive schools and gloriously manicured country clubs, weekend homes and far-flung travel.

This is a nation where 11 percent of the population control 88 percent of its wealth, according to Mexico's National Institute of Statistics.

And the children inside that world have lives of prosperity and promise: Served by nannies and chauffeurs. Cruising shopping malls with drivers doubling as bodyguards. Crashing club scenes, or party hopping in private homes.

But for the omnipresent specter of kidnapping, they lead Latin America's version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous -- an affluent, cloistered existence unimaginable to a malnourished infant in Guatemala, boys who pick through a garbage dump in Honduras, live on the streets of Argentina or in an orphanage in Haiti.

Multilingual education for these children is de rigueur.

With a driver to ferry kids, after-school hours are filled with special programs, in private places: dance class, swimming, chess, even Pilates for Kids in exclusive gyms with specially shrunk exercise equipment.

"A park? What's a park? Do they even exist in Mexico?" cracks 16-year-old Jimena after taking her horse Chito through the paces at secluded stables in a pastoral pocket of this sprawling metropolis of about 18 million.

She has been riding since age 8 -- and wants to be a neurologist when she grows up.

Meantime, life mostly revolves around private school, riding five times weekly, high-end shopping malls and house parties. Jimena hosted one that drew 600 kids, coming and going -- an estimate her mother Rosario confirms, with a nod.

Sixteen-year-old Juan Pablo, right, a private-school student who wants to study music at Julliard in New York, spends time with friends after school. (Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald)

COSMOPOLITAN LIFE

Theirs is a cosmopolitan existence: plans to study abroad at a university, designer labels, studying with a friend at Starbucks, where the price tag for two double espressos equals the daily minimum wage.

But for the wealthy across this city and in other posh pockets of Latin America, raising their rich kids also requires a level of security that, critics argue, spawns a life of isolation and alienation -- cut off from swaths of their own culture, watching too much TV, in the care of nannies.

"They don't go to the park. They don't go out. They order in and the maids bring to their rooms. I think it is a lost generation," declares Guadalupe Loaeza, a writer and intellectual who has for years ruffled elite sensibilities.

Cut off from poorer pockets of society, she says, affluent Mexican children "live in a golden cage, they live in a prison," says Loaeza.

"They don't understand the world where they are living."

Now, she says, she has detected spiraling eating disorders and even younger drug abuse among the elites, a sign, she says, of their social alienation.

It all comes down to security in a nation where wealthy parents see the No. 1 threat to their child as kidnap and ransom -- not a broken leg on the ski slopes, nor being hit by a car crossing the road without looking both ways.

So much so that time and again wealthy executives and other Mexicans of privilege turned down The Miami Herald request to document their children's lavish lifestyles.

"Why expose your children to the press?" says David Robillard, director of the Mexico City office of the Kroll Inc. risk assessing security consultants. "You're only allowing a kidnapper to profile them."

Which is why, in this age of the Internet and Web-profiling, with rare exception, The Miami Herald is identifying wealthy children and their parents in this article by their first names, omitting their neighborhoods and school names and the locations of their hangouts in exchange for conversations about their affluent lifestyles.

"I'm not really worried about it -- but my parents are," says Diego, 19, son of an insurance executive, as he hung out with other teens after school at a McDonald's frequented by the kids from a posh Catholic school.

One of his friends was kidnapped two months ago, he said, held for two weeks, and then freed for a sum of cash he does not know. His uncle, he said, was held for 12 hours and released for "big money," he said.

"It's like an express kidnapping," he adds, softly.

Even before these episodes, he said, he had to call his mom by cellphone four to five times a day, each time he drives from one place to another. Once home for the night, he says, he shows himself to his mother -- a ritual that will likely continue until he goes to university, in Canada.

Adds Claudia, 44, whose three kids shuttle between a private Jewish school, sports and exclusive riding stables where her 14-year-old daughter Orly trains five times a week on her mare, Luna:

A group of girls, all private-school students still wearing their uniforms, cruise a posh shopping mall on a Friday night in Mexico City. (Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald)

'WE ARE LUCKY'

"We are the lucky part of Mexico, very lucky. We can't complain at all. I think every day, every week about how lucky I am -- with healthy kids and private schools. We can give them a good education. We have a car."

Actually, three cars -- one for her, one for her husband and one for a son.

Yet, her children "don't know what it means to be independent. They live in a small bubble, very protected," she said. "We don't let them go out by themselves. You have to know all the time where your husband and your kids are."

It is at the riding lessons where her daughter mixes with other girls from different private schools, and different communities, a break from their insular society.

But it isn't cheap. Maintaining a child's passion for her horse, she says, "is like sending a dumb child to Harvard."

Latin America's elite have never been shy about showing off their wealth, and it is fully on display on a Friday evening in a Bal Harbour-style mall in a wealthy northern suburb, where kids in Italian leather loafers, hip-hugging tatty jeans and designer tops cruise the concourse.

Each and every one appears to be carrying a sleek, cutting-edge cellphone, ringing each other across the food court -- their drivers and bodyguards arrayed an escalator ride above them in business attire, watching their wards weaving through crowds, giggling at the Clinique counter, getting a snack.

You will see no photos of those guards with this article.

Little more than a minute into our visit, a uniformed security guard alerted by a walkie-talkie earphone appears at a Miami Herald photographer's elbow and declares photos of the security detail strictly off-limits.

Some kids consider their security guards an embarrassment.

Some see them as status symbols.

But, for many, they are a fact of life, another servant, an accessory to bring along with your cellphone when heading out the door.

Says a 15-year-old boy in an Abercrombie bomber jacket over his uniform, while sneaking a cigarette outside an exclusive school run by Irish-Catholic priests in one of Mexico City's wealthiest suburbs: "Everybody has a driver with a gun. But the really rich kids have bodyguards, too."

Web design by Shawn Greene / Miami Herald