As the sun began to burn in the pale blue sky above Las Vegas this past Wednesday, 6-year-old Cole Puffinburger should have had an otherwise quiet morning as he prepared to leave leave for school. Instead he was kidnapped at gunpoint and taken from his mother and her boyfriend by suspected Mexican drug cartel members. While local police and the FBI conduct a multi-state and growing international search for the fair-haired friendly first grader, investigators know that this is but one of a number of similar brazen drug related crimes to be committed by members of Mexican drug gangs.
In the case of Puffinburger, two of three believed kidnappers allegedly attempted to pass themselves off as police officers when they knocked on the door of his suburban Las Vegas home at 7:00 a.m Two of the kidnappers, described as Mexicans wearing dark clothing, forced their way into Puffinburger's home, demanding to see his grandfather and equally demanding money from those in the house. Cole's grandfather had not resided in that home for a year, but the kidnappers relentlessly pressed their demands, ransacked the home, tied up the victim's mother and her male friend, and fled to parts unknown with the young boy in their custody. Amber alerts and other nationwide alarms have been raised, but so far the almost 4 ft. tall boy remains among the missing.
"This was not a random incident," said local police, but a crime "targeted at that specific home and its residents." Drug related crime is nothing new to the U.S. states that border Mexico and those involved continue to burrow even deeper into America. In a recent year Phoenix police reported 357 local abductions that had some connection to Mexican crime gangs. Hundreds of tons of illegal drugs flow from Mexico into the U.S. every year, sales that bring "south of the border" drug cartels billions of illegal dollars. Puffinburger's kidnappers are likely to be drug gang members that routinely cross into the U.S. from Mexico to kidnap and demand many thousands of dollars in ransom from victim's family for the safe return of their loved one. I worked against one such cross border kidnap gang, one in this case that counted among its members both current and former Mexican police officers. If the ransom demands were not met, gang members would cut off a piece of the victim's ear and mail it back to his or her family or employer. In yet another abduction, kidnappers called the victim's former wife and demanded ransom as they threatened to cut off his hand, giving her the choice of which hand they would remove.
In the case of Cole Puffinburger, some media reports indicate his grandfather had taken drugs from, or owed drug money to a Mexican cartel. Perhaps they believe that his abduction will get their money or drugs back, in this case possibly threatening to hurt the young victim if the grandfather or other relatives do not meet their demands. These "just across the border" drug gangs move marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine and other drugs across the porous boundary between America and its southern neighbor. Such kidnapping and drug movement activities are not limited to the Border States though. In one Georgia County, for example, almost a dozen drug related kidnappings occurred in the first six months of 2008. The local district attorney described these kidnappings as not simply a "blip," indicating drugs are flooding into this country at an ever alarming rate.
In a case similar to the kidnapping of Cole Puffinburger, a 7-year-old Philadelphia boy was taken at gunpoint from an otherwise unremarkable home in an equally unremarkable neighborhood. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of $250,000, but, as police say, "there's a lot of cash and (drug money) on the street," and kidnappers usually know what their victims can "afford" to pay. Police and the FBI believe that drug related abductions are greatly underreported, usually because victims, and their family members, don't want to shine a light on their own illegal activities. Statistically, many victims are returned alive as, after all; killing a victim sends a bad message to future extortion victims and brings law enforcement down on the kidnap gangs. Drug cartel members routinely target other gang members as they know where to go to find the money. Although such abductions were once entirely related to other drug dealers and users, victims are found now that are outside of the purple haze of the drug world.
Drug related murders are very frequent along the U.S./Mexican border. Recently authorities in Tijuana found 16 dead bodies in one 24-hour period, (over 30 in a week), with all of the victims believed to have been perhaps tortured, and eventually murdered over drugs and drug money. Kidnappings have become so severe and numerous in Mexico, with over 7,000 "reported" in 2007 alone, that that country has now surpassed Columbia and even Iraq in kidnappings and drug cartels. Corrupt Mexican police officers and military veterans are either gang members themselves or are paid to look the other way as drug gangs use kidnappings as but one more weapon to wage a war of terror on those who would oppose or cross them.
Should Cole Puffinburger be another victim of an ever increasing wave of drug related crimes committed by Mexican drug gangs in the U.S., hopefully in their need to avoid further U.S. police attention the gang will release the young boy unharmed. If the stories are correct, his family members may, like many before them, secretly pay the demanded ransom to secure the boy's safe return. In the meantime Mexican gang members and illegal drugs continue to pour across the U.S. border and anyone who gets in the gang's way could meet a fate similar to that of Puffinburger or to the victims whose bodies have been recovered along our southern border.