FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Brazilian parents of a month-old boy who police say was kidnapped to settle a debt confirmed they owed money to a smuggling ring that brought them illegally to the U.S. But they don't believe the smugglers took their baby.
Maria Fatima Ramos Dos Santos, 23, and Jurandir Gomes Costa, 26, told the News-Press of Fort Myers they owed "coyotes" — human smugglers — a few hundred dollars, but they said it was unlikely the men were behind the kidnapping of Bryan Dos Santos Gomes earlier this month.
They declined to say more. Family friend Keyla Desousa, 30, of Cape Coral, Fla., said the couple fears the smugglers will harm family in their native Brazil.
"They are afraid to talk," Desousa said through a translator.
The search for the missing infant took a dramatic twist Saturday when Fort Myers police announced they believed the alleged kidnapper belongs to a smuggling ring, despite their initial belief the boy was likely taken by a woman looking to steal a baby to claim as her own.
Fort Myers Police Chief Hilton Daniels declined to elaborate on the change in direction in the case, but said the information was based on new leads developed late last week.
Bryan has been missing since Dec. 1 when he and his mother, as well as another woman and a baby, were approached by a woman driving a black sport utility vehicle. The women, who did not know the driver, agreed to give directions and entered the SUV with their children, police said.
The driver, armed with a knife, later forced one mother and child out of the car, and made off with Ramos and the baby, police said. Ramos was released south of Fort Myers shortly afterward, but the woman in the SUV reportedly kept the baby.
Police believe the initial account of the kidnapping is accurate. Daniels appealed to Fort Myers' immigrant community to come forward with information about the kidnappers or smugglers.
"If you're illegally in the country, please come forward. Our intent is not to swoop you up and deport you. Our goal is to find this baby," Daniels said Saturday.
Ramos said through a Portuguese translator Saturday that she and Costa still owe the smugglers who brought them through Mexico into the United States about two years ago.
The couple's immigration status was unclear on Sunday. A call to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was not immediately returned.
The U.S. State Department estimates human smuggling is a $10 billion annual global industry, with hundreds of thousands of people paying to get into the United States each year. About 18,000 people are brought in by human traffickers, who force clients to work off their debts in often inhuman conditions.
Fort Myers police said they are investigating both human smuggling and trafficking angles. Daniels said the tip about the outstanding debt did not come from Bryan's parents.
The development sparked new concerns for Bryan's safety.
"There's a part of me that hopes they're wrong. If it's a reprisal abduction and we have not heard from the abductors in more than a week, it does not bode well for the baby," said John Rabun, executive vice president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.
A reward of $21,000 is being offered for safe return of the baby.