Baghdad on Our Border
Debra and Chris Hall, in their El Cajon, California, home, a year after their brush with death in Mexico
Credit: Debra and Chris Hall, in their El Cajon, California, home, a year after their brush with death in Mexico. Photograph by John Dole

It was after midnight on a cold November night. Chris and Debra Hall were driving home to El Cajon, California, on Baja's coastal toll road, as they had done a hundred times. Every year for the last 25 they'd gone to Mexico so Chris could pursue his passion for off-road racing. Baja had the best competitions, and he worked the pit crews for all of its big races.

On this evening, in 2007, they were returning from the Baja 1000, in Cabo San Lucas, pulling a racing buddy's 30-foot Weekend Warrior trailer. As their 16-year-old son Tyler and 21-year-old daughter Divinia dozed in the backseat of Chris's new Ford truck, the couple heard an upsetting story on the radio: Two armed gunmen in Ensenada, Mexico, wearing masks and dark clothes, had forced a surfer from San Diego out of his RV, robbed and beaten him, then raped his girlfriend. How awful, the Halls thought. That wasn't the Baja they knew and loved.

They were five miles from the U.S. border, just outside Tijuana, when a black car with flashing red and blue lights and a blaring siren pulled up behind them. "Were you speeding?" Debra asked her husband, who shook his head no. "Are you sure?" she said.

"I absolutely was not speeding," Chris said as he pulled to the side of the highway, convinced this must be another police shakedown. No big deal, he thought. Payoffs and petty thefts were part of the Mexico experience; over the years they'd had to hand over race helmets, an ice chest, and the occasional watch and wallet, but never had they feared for their safety. This was laid-back TJ, after all, not bullet-scarred, kidnap-crazy Colombia. The Halls figured $40 would satisfy the cops – it always had in the past – and in an hour they'd be home.

Seconds later another car pulled in front of them and backed onto their bumper. Nine men, all wearing black paramilitary uniforms, high black leather boots, and knit face masks surrounded the truck, rifles drawn. "Shut up or we'll shoot you!" said the group's leader, a 30-something Mexican. He put a gun to Tyler's head while another man pulled Chris from the truck and a third pressed a gun to Debra's ribs as he ripped out the truck's radio and navigation system.

The attackers moved with speed and precision, as if they'd been trained for this kind of operation. Over and over they screamed, "Where's the money?" "What do you do for a living?" "Where's the race car?" and the chilling, "Who do we call?" Chris knew this last question meant they'd been kidnapped for a ransom. He tried to stay calm as he explained that they were an ordinary family of modest means – he was a truck driver; Debra, an account manager at a health insurance company. They had no race car.

"Let our kids go," Debra pleaded.

"Shut up, lady, or I'll kill you!" one of the gunmen yelled in English, as he shoved Chris into the backseat with the kids, then jumped behind the wheel. The car in front led them off the main highway onto an unmarked dirt road, then lumbered up a steep hill. Then they stopped. As three gunmen stayed in the truck guarding the Halls, the others ransacked the trailer, then the truck, picking both clean: wallets, cell phones, credit cards, keys to both vehicles, all their cash – about $1,100 – and even Debra's gold loop earrings. One man put his hand around Divinia's neck as another felt down her legs to see if she had anything of value in the pockets of her cargo pants.

Again, the angry questions: "Where is the rest of your money?" "Where is the race car?" And again Chris told them, "We don't have a race car or any more money."

Agitated and impatient, the gunmen huddled to discuss their next move, since it was clear that the Halls were worth nothing to them. Moments later the gang's leader signaled for everybody to get back in the vehicles, and the caravan started up again, driving farther into the isolated, pitch-black hills. When they stopped, two men yanked Tyler out of the truck and pushed him down on his knees in a ditch. He started to cry, terrified. Next, the men forced Debra facedown on the ground, then Chris and Divinia – all of them with guns pointed at their heads. "Please don't hurt my babies," Debra pleaded.

"Shut the fuck up about your babies!" shouted the leader. Wearing only shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops, the Halls trembled in the frigid night air. Chris draped his body over his daughter to protect her as one of the gunmen threw a sleeping bag over Debra and her son. She figured this was to muffle the sound of bullets and keep blood from splattering onto the uniforms of their killers. "I'm so sorry," Debra said to Tyler, stroking his head and crying. Over and over the Halls said to each other, "I love you." Then they lowered their heads and prepared to die.