A Santa Paula man missing nearly three weeks may have been the victim of a Tijuana ring that used a kidnapping scam to extort money from U.S. residents, authorities said Wednesday.
In at least nine cases tied to the ring, extortionists claimed to be holding a relative in or near Mexico and demanded payment for a safe return.
Victims usually did not learn that the missing relative was not being held, but was simply out of touch, until they had paid off the extortionists, police said.
In this case, authorities said they were not sure if the ring ever held Nazario Castanon, 34, who disappeared March 6 at a Tijuana bar, or if the ring obtained his identity some other way while he was visiting in Mexico with his brother.
Five of the ring members were arrested by U.S. and Mexican authorities during the last week, but they have not given any information on where Castanon might be found, said Randy Aden, supervisory agent in charge of the FBI's Ventura office.
"We have no indication that they kidnapped him," Aden said. "He may have been lost. He may have been abducted just long enough to get his identity and then abandoned. We just don't know what happened to him."
Relatives are concerned for Castanon's safety because he is epileptic and may not have medicine to treat his frequent seizures, said Det. Michelle Velasco of the Santa Paula Police Department.
Castanon was at a bar with his 23-year-old brother, Luis Castanon, when the younger brother went off to dance with a girl, she said. When he returned a few minutes later, Nazario Castanon had vanished, Velasco said.
The family put up missing-person posters in Tijuana and checked hospitals until March 9, when they returned to Santa Paula, Velasco said.
Shortly after, they began receiving ransom demands from a caller who said Castanon was being held in the San Diego area.
The family contacted police, and authorities quickly determined that it was the work of an extortion ring and set up a sting. On March 17, money wired by the family was picked up in San Ysidro by Abel Rubio Flores, 38, who was taken into custody on suspicion of extortion.
Based on information provided by Flores, additional suspects have been arrested by Mexican authorities in recent days, Velasco said.
Police believe the group is tied to at least nine extortion demands across the United States.
The Castanon case is the only one in which the alleged kidnapping target has not been located, Velasco said.
In the other cases, the missing family members usually turned up after being out of contact for a few days, the detective said.
Anyone who has information about Castanon's whereabouts is asked to call the Santa Paula Police Department at (805) 933-4239, or the Ventura FBI office at (805) 642-3995.
Aden said the ring preys on undocumented immigrants in the United States because they are less likely to notify authorities.
But the scam has been around for a while, Aden said.
"We suspect there are anywhere from hundreds to thousands of attempts made -- some are fruitful and some are not," he said. "Those who are preyed upon are the least likely to be able to pay and the most reluctant to reach out to law enforcement for help."