(CNN) -- When he saw three masked gunmen running toward him and his friend during a September fishing trip just outside Monterrey, Mexico, Shane Andersen knew exactly what was happening.
"I was about to be kidnapped."
Looking back on that day, Andersen admitted "we were easy pickings."
He had taken up a co-worker's offer to go fishing at a family ranch in the outskirts of Monterrey. The area is a recreational hot spot for wealthy locals.
It happened in just 15 seconds.
"The instant they were in front of my car, they slammed on their brakes and their doors were opening," Andersen said. Before he could react, he was ushered into a pickup at gunpoint by "three kids."
One person demanded their cell phones and aimed an AR-15 at them, Andersen said. His armed accomplices followed closely behind.
The kidnappers wanted $20,000 ransom.
A former safe haven
As recently as 2005, Monterrey was dubbed the safest city in Latin America by a global consulting firm. Historically a financial bastion, it was in 2010 that Monterrey became victim to the lawlessness and violence spreading throughout the country. Soon, parts of Mexico's third-largest city turned into a cartel battleground where grenade attacks, shootouts and kidnappings dominated headlines.
In August 2012, gunmen killed nine people in the Matehuala bar, a well-known drinking and topless-dancing venue. Just a month before in July 2012, suspected cartel gunmen attacked the offices of the "El Norte" newspaper. Even quaint and one-time peaceful towns on the outskirts of Monterrey became ghost towns, such as Pesqueria, traditionally a farming and agriculture community of about 20,000 now almost abandoned because of cartel activity.
Andersen read the headlines before moving to Monterrey, but that didn't stop him from relocating to the city that he says would train him to be a successful business owner.
"My plan was to open a chain of pizzerias in Latin America. I just love Latin culture. I always have," he told CNN.
Rather than worry about the violence he would potentially encounter, he practiced ways of being prepared if something did happen.
When the unthinkable did happen, a year and a half after he moved to Monterrey, Andersen went over what he had practiced.
"I'd been so afraid of being kidnapped, that I thought about everything I'd do if I was kidnapped," he said. "I'm a geography major and kept track of where we were, using the sun. We went back to where they were from, in the middle of this vast valley. There were little pockets of neighborhoods where there were farmers. It was a farming area filled with guys just like the ones who had taken me."
In fact, the locals appeared so accustomed to seeing kidnapping victims that Andersen said "people saw me, knew what was going on and didn't say anything. And the cartel guys, they weren't hiding their identity either. They paraded us like treasure. Like a trophy deer."
But, officials say, Mexico is generally on an upward trend in terms of security, a U.S. State Department spokesman told CNN.
"Compared to the past 15 years, things are getting better," the spokesman added.
Others see the issue as more complex than that.
According to the Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano, a Mexico-based security and justice organization that keeps track of violent crime and kidnappings, more than 1,300 people were officially reported kidnapped in 2012. Statistics for 2013 are still being compiled, but through April of last year, 553 people were reported kidnapped.
And that's just the official statistics. Many more kidnappings are never reported.
Mexico was listed as the country with the most reported kidnappings for ransom in 2013, according to Control Risks, an independent global risk and consultancy group, which according to its website helps organizations around the world "to understand and manage risks and opportunities of operating in complex or hostile environments."
In fact, Mexico had more "sequestros" -- or kidnappings as they're referred to in Spanish -- than even Afghanistan, Colombia or Iraq. Among the other notable at risk countries for kidnappings were India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Venezuela.
'Your friend just cost you your life'
Nuevo Leon, the Mexican state where Andersen was kidnapped, is not on the list of most at-risk Mexican states, but according to Control Risks, the rise in kidnappings in and around Nuevo Leon was caused by the proliferation of violent crime groups such as Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel in recent years. It was teenaged Gulf Cartel operatives who kidnapped Andersen, according to what police told him, he said.
"They were probably low-level guys, but they knew what they were doing, however sloppy their operation was," Andersen said.
Lying face down in the back of their red pickup, Andersen said he would close his eyes, opening them up only when his eyelids trembled in hopes that what he was experiencing was only a bad dream.
"'Don't look at their faces,' I thought, 'Then they'll have to kill you.' What else? I didn't know what else, I was too in shock to think straight."
Andersen's co-worker, who was also in the back of the truck with him, laid still like a corpse. He pretended not to hear Andersen when he asked whether the men were going to kill them.
"I was starting to break, every part of me wanted to break down and cry. So I turned to prayer and thought about my wife."
The ordeal went on for hours, Andersen said, until eventually the leader of the group crouched down close to his face and said in Spanish, "I give you my word that if you get us our money, we won't kill you.' Then he handed me the phone, put his gun to my head and told me to call my boss."
Andersen's boss initially thought he was joking, though any semblance of humor faded as soon as one of the gunmen began cursing into the phone. Meanwhile, Andersen's co-worker had arranged a separate agreement with the kidnappers to give them his expensive car in exchange for his release. It was on the mission to retrieve the car that Andersen's co-worker managed to escape his kidnappers.
"Your friend just cost you your life," one of them told Andersen upon returning empty-handed. Andersen said they debated for "awhile" on whether they were going to kill him or continue the kidnapping for ransom.
"A lot of Americans feel that when they visit Mexico for vacation or spend time working there, they are immune to the drug-related violence going on around them because they have nothing to do with it. The truth is that certain drug cartels and gangs in Mexico stopped caring long ago about staying away from Americans or innocent people in general," drug war analyst Sylvia Longmire told CNN.
"The name of the game is to make as much money as possible, and non-Latino Americans are viewed as lucrative kidnap-and-ransom targets, regardless of how much money they actually have in the bank back home," according to Longmire, whose drug war blog is considered to provide some of the most comprehensive analysis of the security situation in Mexico.
It's that perception among the cartels that might have saved Andersen's life. His kidnappers decided to go forward with the ransom, but for less than the $20,000 originally demanded.
"While the risk is very high because U.S. victims are more likely to trust and call U.S. law enforcement agencies like the FBI, some won't because they fear for their lives and those of their family members," Longmire added.
Andersen's family says it was working with the FBI on his case.
But what eventually helped bring Andersen home had nothing to do with law enforcement and had everything to do with chance.
An unlikely ally
About halfway through his 36 hours in captivity, while Andersen was being paraded through the rural streets, he met a young boy. We'll call him Alberto, but that's not his real name.
"For the first time in captivity, I was being treated like a human," he said. "I started to trust him. We talked about Xbox and video games. I asked him about sports, and we talked futbol. He was the only one I could trust."
Andersen is convinced that it was Alberto's petitioning that kept him alive while ransom negotiations were ongoing. A small ransom of 80,000 pesos or about $6,000 was provided by Andersen's boss at a remote location in the city, but the kidnappers wanted more. Andersen said he's convinced they would have killed him had he not offered to get them his wife's nearly $7,000 wedding ring to make up the rest of the latest ransom demands.
They agreed to have the ring dropped off at a neutral location. Even after they secured the ring, Andersen said his kidnappers made him describe it to them so that he could verify its value and authenticity. He said they didn't want to take any chances that his wife may have dropped off a ring of lesser value in its place.
"This was my final moment of truth," Andersen said.
The kidnappers then left him in the middle of nowhere to find his way back to his home.
"One of them turned to me and said, 'If you can make it out of here alive, you survived.' Then they jumped in the truck and tore off down the road."
Still in danger in the heart of cartel country, Andersen says it was Alberto who acted as his guide to get out of the countryside alive. They hiked across dense forest and trekked upstream of a river several hundred yards before flagging down a bus on the side of the road.
"About 25 minutes later, we arrived at the very city my ransom had been dropped off at an hour earlier. We walked to the town plaza and formed a plan. We decided it wasn't feasible for me to make it back using the bus system, so we had to choose a taxi, but many taxi drivers worked for drug traffickers or were kidnappers themselves, so we spotted two older gentleman and hoped they were trustworthy enough to get me back home," Andersen said.
They agreed upon an older looking man, hoping that he would get Andersen home safely. He said his final goodbye to Alberto, got in the car and prayed to get home.
On the way home, he thought of the young boy who helped get him out alive. Andersen has had no contact with him since but believes the boy is still alive.
Thirty-six hours after being taken, Andersen was at the door of a friend's house, ringing the bell as a free man.
"I began to sob waiting for the door to be answered, and when I saw a shadow behind the glass, I sobbed harder. The door opened, and I fell into my friend's arms," he said.
Coming full circle
In the hours after his return home, Mexican investigators showed up at Andersen's home to tell him they knew the teens who abducted him.
"He explained they had kidnapped many people they knew of and more they probably didn't know of and my information was critical in stopping more people from suffering," Andersen said.
Two months later, Andersen said he got a phone call from the anti-kidnapping unit in Mexico alerting them to a news story they thought might interest him.
"There was a 25-year-old woman who had been abducted in broad daylight as she walked with her husband," Andersen said, who is now living back the United States. "She was held for several days before Mexican authorities went in for an extraction. They killed all four captors and rescued the woman."
Investigators told him three of the men who died that day were the ones who kidnapped him.
"They were killed on the same dusty earth I was held captive months earlier," he told CNN.