Roberto, a San Diego machinist in his mid-30s, used to visit his family across the border in Tijuana every few weeks. But in the summer of 2005, while he was relaxing at a family home there, a group of approximately 20 masked men burst in suddenly. Claiming to be Mexican police, the armed men grabbed Roberto as well as another family member and a close friend. They then blindfolded all three, tied their hands behind their backs, threw them into a car and sped away. The men also took Roberto's new truck, which was parked at the house and may have tipped off the kidnappers that he or his family had enough money to pay their ransom.
Later that day the kidnappers called his oldest daughter to demand payment using a number they had retrieved from Roberto's cell phone. For the following two weeks Roberto, who declined to use his real name because he is still frightened by the ordeal, was hogtied, left on a concrete floor and victimized by "constant" beatings, he says. His captors fed him three tortillas the entire time, and gave him very little water. They separated him from his fellow abductees; he wasn't sure where they were being held. "[The kidnappers] kept telling me they were sharpening their knives and were going to kill me. I didn't know why this was happening to me," Roberto, speaking Spanish through an interpreter, told NEWSWEEK in an exclusive telephone interview. "They broke three of my ribs on the right side and sliced off the tip of my tongue."
Captors let Roberto go after his family paid an undisclosed ransom, says FBI spokesman Darrell Foxworth. But Roberto's relative is still missing and presumed dead; his friend, who was also released, remains severely traumatized. Says Roberto, "If I even moved, they'd hit me. I didn't sleep the first week. I constantly thought I was going to die."
Kidnappings of American residents in the Tijuana area south of San Diego have accelerated dramatically since Roberto's 2005 abduction. There were 11 such incidents in 2006 and 26 in 2007. Over the last few months they've spiked to an unprecedented high—and grown ever more violent. Since Thanksgiving at least 18 U.S. residents have been kidnapped and held for ransom in and around Tijuana, according to Keith Slotter, the special agent in charge of the FBI's San Diego office. That averages out to about six per month. Late last month Mexican authorities rescued two female real estate agents—one a U.S. resident—who had been kidnapped on Jan. 19 and arrested three kidnappers, according to the FBI. The bureau would not talk specifically about the case or comment on whether the three men were suspects in any of the other abductions.
The kidnappings are just one symptom of a wave of violent crime that has washed over the border region and caused American tourism in Tijuana to drop by more than 50 percent in the last year, according to Jack Doron, president of the Tijuana Merchants Association. Drug gangs have killed more than 50 people in Tijuana already this year, according to the Los Angeles Times, and the city has been the scene of several shootouts and police assassinations in recent months. Two weeks ago residents found six bodies on the streets with signs attached to the corpses that warned against participating in a new Mexican Army program to encourage citizens to inform on drug traffickers. While the FBI's Slotter says the kidnappings and drug violence don't appear to be directly linked, he notes that they are part of the same general trend of growing lawlessness in Baja.
Some of the 18 recent kidnapping victims have been killed, while others have survived but suffered serious injuries, Slotter says. Kidnappers raped some of the female victims. The violence associated with the abductions "goes way beyond anything we've seen, in terms of brutality," he says. "We don't really know why."
And in a startling twist, kidnappers have begun to seize their victims inside the U.S. and take them to Mexico. "Any kidnapping anywhere is one too many," suggests Slotter, "but when American residents are kidnapped inside our own country and taken to another country to be tortured and even killed, that is totally unacceptable." [Mexican authorities have sent troops into the streets in the midst of a major crackdown on gang violence and are also cooperating with U.S. law enforcement in trying to solve the kidnapping cases.] The FBI works cross-border kidnappings in coordination with the Baja California Anti-Kidnaping Group. Because the victims are often held in Mexico, all operational aspects of the investigation are coordinated and conducted through the Baja California Anti-Kidnaping Group. "This coordination has contributed to the successful resolution of a number kidnaping cases," says FBI spokesman Darrell Foxworth tells NEWSWEEK.
As a result of the increase in violent crime, American officials are urging caution. Two weeks ago, the U.S. consulate in Tijuana issued a travel advisory warning tourists to be "extra careful" because of the recent increase in violence. And last week authorities at San Diego State University, the largest college in the area, cautioned students to "consider the recent violence" before traveling south for spring break.
The kidnappers apparently select victims who have money or have families with enough money to pay hefty ransoms. Most have business or family ties to Mexico. "They are not picked randomly," says Slotter ominously. They are preselected." Slotter isn't sure how sophisticated the kidnappers' surveillance methods are or if they are actually getting their hands on financial records of their would-be captives. Roberto says he drove a new truck with California plates across the border to a "not so well off" part of Tijuana to visit family members. That may have been all the information kidnappers needed.
Kidnappings in Mexico have historically been fallout of drug trafficking or payback for something that went bad. But Slotter says that's changing. "The crime cells in Tijuana have realized kidnapping is profitable," says Slotter. "We believe it's just a couple of groups perpetrating these crimes."
The cross-border communication between kidnappers and the victims' families gives the FBI its jurisdiction. But the bureau still needs authorization from Mexican authorities before carrying out an operation across the border, and he says law enforcement from both sides of the border is cooperating. "The two full-time border liaisons in our office are working very closely with Mexican authorities to apprehend and prosecute these people," says Slotter, who admits that prosecution is difficult. The bureau has worked U.S. kidnappings throughout its history, he notes, and there is typically a high degree of confidence that the victim(s) will be returned safely and the kidnapper(s) will be apprehended. But when it happens across the border, the cases become much more challenging.
"Our primary goal in these cases is to work with families to return the victims safely from Mexico, to get the ransom paid and work on negotiations," says Slotter, who remains hopeful that law enforcement can catch the kidnappers. "I'm optimistic that we can find them. It may take more time than a typical kidnapping case, but I have faith that we are going to be successful."
As for Roberto, he says he has no plans to cross the border again. Ten years before he was abducted, he says he consulted a tarot card reader in downtown Tijuana who actually said that one day he would be kidnapped. "I just laughed. I dismissed it at the time," he says. "But it's not funny anymore. It makes me sad what has happened there. It's my home country, but … I want other people to know how dangerous it has become. I will never return to Mexico."