Police believe a month-old baby boy kidnapped in Fort Myers, Fla., was abducted as retribution for money his parents owed to a human smuggling ring.
Fort Myers Police Chief Hilton Daniels said the parents of Bryan Dos Santos Gomes were brought into the United States illegally from Brazil, "but failed to pay the smugglers' entire fee."
On Dec. 1, Maria Fatima Ramos Dos Santos was walking with her baby and another woman and child when they were approached by a woman driving a black sports utility vehicle. The driver asked the women for directions, and they agreed to get into the SUV to show her the way.
Police say the driver then forced the other mother and child out of the car and escaped with Ramos and her baby. Ramos was released outside Fort Myers uninjured, but the kidnapper kept the baby.
At first, police believed it was a case of a woman who wanted a baby and was acting alone.
After various law enforcement agencies and missing children groups offered a reward of $21,000, police said information in the last 24 hours pointed to a human smuggling ring.
"We are still looking for the woman [the female driver]," police spokeswoman Shelly Flynn said. "But it is not a woman who desperately needed a baby. Now, we are looking for a group of people."
Fort Myers police say human smuggling is all too common, but Fort Myers police spokeswoman Amy Cureton said she was not aware of any other case where a child was taken as reprisal, and "it hopefully will never happen again."
Cureton said police believe there are more people in the area who have been smuggled into the country illegally, and they're asking them to come forward to give any information about the smugglers.
"We are not interested in arresting them," said Cureton, adding that they can call in anonymously without leaving their name or number. "We just want to find that baby."
Cureton said the longer a baby is missing, the harder it to locate because the kidnappers can travel a further distance.
Officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are assisting the Ft. Myers Police Department.
"Smugglers have no regard for human life," spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said, "which is why we strongly discourage human smuggling -- not just because it is illegal, but people are putting their lives at risk."
Kim Petersen, executive director of the Carole Sund/Carrington Foundation, which put up $5,000 of the reward money, was shocked today to hear the baby may have been taken as retribution.
"How horrible!" she exclaimed.
But Petersen remains confident baby Bryan is still alive.
"He is the incentive," she said, "to pay their debt to get him back. If they were to injure him, that wouldn't happen."
The parents of the kidnapped baby have said publicly through a local church that is helping them that they don't believe the smuggling ring theory. The mother, Dos Santos, acknowledged to the Fort Myers News Press that she and her husband, Jurandir Gomes Costa do owe "a few hundred dollars" to "coyotes," as she referred to the professional human smugglers, who took them from Brazil through Mexico into the United States.
A family friend told the News Press the parents are afraid to say much to the media about the human smuggling ring because they fear for their family still living in Brazil.