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

No one knew that better than Felix Batista, a kidnapping and ransom expert in Miami, and his comments to me last December, a few days before his own abduction, now seem particularly poignant. (Read about Batista's kidnapping here.) "Kidnapping has become Mexico's biggest cottage industry, and now every lowlife is getting in on the game," he said. In 2008 drug gangs and their surrogates in the U.S. with green cards and passports abducted or killed people in San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, and Atlanta. Recently, Las Vegas was added to the travelogue of horrors. In October three Hispanic men wearing police uniforms kidnapped six-year-old Cole Puffinburger at gunpoint in his home. Police believe Mexican drug dealers took the boy as revenge after being ripped off for millions of dollars by the child's grandfather, 51-year-old Clemens Tinnemeyer.

"It's one thing to drive across the border into San Diego," Batista told me last December, "but driving all the way to Vegas to take a little boy? Now that's brazen."

Instead of waiting for the ransom call, Las Vegas police blanketed TV, radio, and print with information about the abduction. It worked. Four days after the kidnapping, at around 10:30 at night, a bus driver spotted Cole walking on a deserted sidewalk near downtown Vegas, bewildered but unharmed. The boy's grandfather and one Hispanic "person of interest" are in custody, awaiting trial, as the investigation shifts from a kidnapping to a drug rip-off.

Most of the American kidnapping victims – 27 in 2007 and 26 in 2008 – were abducted in broad daylight after crossing the border (usually to work or visit family). They were held in dark, filthy safe houses while desperate relatives negotiated for their release. Victims have been beaten, raped, tortured – and killed. After ransom drops, some have been returned, unharmed or with serious wounds – their fingers or toes cut off – while still others have never been seen again, presumed murdered, their bodies dumped on roadsides, at the city dump, or in shallow graves scattered across the Sonoran Desert.

That's probably what happened last year to a medical doctor (whose name the FBI is withholding) who lived in San Diego but worked in Tijuana. Sometime in early 2008, the FBI says, a van full of young Mexican men began following him as he crossed the border at San Ysidro. He was the perfect target: He and his wife had moved to the U.S. for a better quality of life 10 years earlier but still had close ties – relatives and a medical practice – in Tijuana, and the doctor frequently crossed the border.

The kidnappers followed the doctor for a few days to nail down his routine. One evening in March the men, heavily armed and wearing police uniforms, grabbed him off a street near downtown Tijuana as he left his office. They pushed him into their van, drove to a nearby safe house, and used his cell phone to call his wife in California. "Give us two million dollars or we're going to kill your husband," the kidnapper said haltingly, as if reading from a script. "And if you go to the cops or tell anyone, we'll cut off his fingers and ears, then kill him." Negotiations dragged on for three weeks before the kidnappers agreed to a lesser ransom. The doctor's wife then drove into Tijuana, followed the kidnappers' purposely convoluted directions, and left the cash in a duffel bag in her car and walked away, with the doors unlocked and the keys on the driver's seat. Moments later two men in their 30s, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, came out of the bushes. One grabbed the bag as the other threw her car keys under a nearby parked car.

They were part of what the FBI believes are at least a dozen well-financed crime groups working in Tijuana, organized like terrorist cells, with clear-cut divisions of labor. The guys waiting in the bushes were the bagmen, while their cohorts handled other tasks: surveillance, abduction, guarding the victim in safe houses, ransom negotiations; if necessary, there are others who cut off fingers and ears or kill a victim when relatives can't pay enough – or pay fast enough. "This is not about getting revenge on some drug rival or government soldier," says Alex Horan, who directs the FBI's violent crime unit in San Diego. "This is a business, and it's all about the money. They know who they're after, and they do this all year long."

After the woman dropped off the ransom, the kidnappers refused to release her husband, demanding more money. Again she begged friends and family for help, and again she drove across the border and dropped the money off, in a bag, as directed.

A year later she still hasn't heard from her husband. "I knew the first time I dropped off the money that they had probably killed him," she says, tearing up, "because they wouldn't let me talk to him. But I kept hoping he was still alive and would come back to us. That's what these kidnappers count on – our love and hope."