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Lost Tot Case Baffles U.S., Mexico Police

Times Staff Writer

Esther Ventura Gonzalez wants her baby back. The 6-month-old girl, reported stolen here Sept. 6, was snatched by a woman believed to be an American, she said.

Ventura Gonzalez, one of the many Indian street vendors who sell simple crafts to tourists here, fears that the infant may have been kidnaped for eventual sale in the United States.

“She was still nursing; I’m afraid she won’t eat,” the mother said during an interview here. “I love her very much. What kind of person would think of stealing a child?”

Police in Mexico and the United States are investigating the reported kidnapping--and at least one U.S. resident has been questioned in connection with the matter--but the baby has yet to be found.

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Friends and family members say that despite some good police work, they fear that the case has become mired in the bureaucratic machinery of the two nations, an unfortunate illustration of the inherent difficulties of investigating cross-border crime.

“Everybody’s hands are tied all of a sudden,” said Stephanie Reynolds, a Solana Beach resident who is godmother of the missing child. Reynolds became acquainted with many of the Indians while studying their culture as a graduate student. She and others believe that the infant may have been abducted by a baby-smuggling ring operating in Tijuana and the United States.

In fact, authorities say, they haven’t determined whether the child was actually kidnaped by a U.S. resident or whether she was ever brought into the United States.

“We have . . . no proof or evidence yet that the child was taken across the border,” said Gary Laturno, an FBI spokesman in San Diego.

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In the past, U.S. and Mexican authorities have broken up a number of baby smuggling rings operating along the border. Such operations specialize in selling Mexican babies to Americans eager to adopt children but frustrated by long waiting lists in the United States.

Last July, two San Ysidro residents were sentenced to one-year jail terms and five years on probation after pleading guilty in U.S. District Court in San Diego to participating in a conspiracy to sell Mexican babies in the United States. According to court papers, the two arranged to deliver seven Mexican babies to U.S. citizens for fees ranging from $4,000 to $5,000.

In the present case, officials acknowledge that the investigation has been slowed by the tangle of laws and law-enforcement agencies of two different nations.

Miguel Martinez Magana, an agent of the state judicial police in Tijuana, said Tuesday that authorities were awaiting more information from the United States. He said that one or more arrest warrants could be issued soon and that one Tijuana resident has been questioned in the case. He declined to elaborate.

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Meanwhile, police in San Bernardino have questioned a resident there regarding her possible knowledge of the case, said Detective Frank Mankin of the San Bernardino Police Department, who also declined to provide additional details. He did say that information had been sent to the San Diego police, who maintain a liaison with Mexico and were therefore in a position to pass on details to Tijuana authorities.

San Bernardino has no such liaison, he said.

Detective George Navarro of the San Diego police said his department had acted as a conduit of information between San Bernardino and Tijuana. But, he added, the case is not under investigation by San Diego police.

The FBI, which has jurisdiction in interstate kidnaping cases in the United States, has not begun a formal investigation because it is still unclear whether the child was taken across the border, said Laturno, the agency spokesman in San Diego. The FBI would have no jurisdiction unless the child were brought into the United States, he said.

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The kidnaping occurred at about 1 p.m. on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 6, according to the family, who are part of Tijuana’s close-knit community of poor Mixtec Indian migrants from the Mexican interior state of Oaxaca. Ventura Gonzalez, the mother, provided the following account:

She was selling artificial flowers at Revolution Avenue and 7th Street, an area crowded with American tourists, particularly on weekends. She was accompanied by her 6-month-old daughter, Virginia Esther, whom she was carrying in a blanket, and her 8-year-old son. At about 1 p.m., the family was approached by a blond woman who spoke broken Spanish and appeared to be an American.

The woman admired her daughter for a while, then asked to pick her up. Ventura Gonzalez looked aside for a moment and, when she turned back, she saw the woman running away with her daughter. She and her son chased after her, but the woman jumped into a car and drove off.

“There was no time to stop them,” said Ventura Gonzalez, clutching a photograph of her daughter.

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Disconsolate and crying, she returned to the street and was comforted by other Mixtec women, many of whom also sell trinkets on the street.

One of the Mixtec women mentioned to Ventura Gonzalez what could be a significant fact: She said that about six weeks earlier, she had been approached by a woman who described herself as an American and said she was interested in purchasing her baby. The Mixtec woman was pregnant and had no interest in selling the child.

The American still provided the Mixtec with her name, address and phone number in San Bernardino.

Last week, Stephanie Reynolds, the missing child’s godmother, said she informed San Bernardino police of the identity of the San Bernardino resident. In San Bernardino, detective Mankin confirmed that a woman residing in the city was questioned in connection with the case, but he provided no details. He said no arrests were expected.

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Meanwhile, Ventura Gonzalez, 28, and her husband, Rodolfo Angel Martinez, who have four other children, are extremely worried about their baby daughter.

“I work very, very hard,” said the father, 29, who is a field worker in Mexico. “To us, the children are the most important thing. We want our daughter back.”


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