For the first time in Arizona Amber Alert's three-year history, it's likely that an accused abductor and his two children have slipped across the border and disappeared into Mexico.
And while U.S. authorities have scoured the state for Rodrigo Cervantes Zavala and the children, Mexican law enforcement and immigration officials knew little of the manhunt until they were contacted by Maricopa County sheriff's investigators three days later.
The case adds to the growing concern that Mexican law enforcement is not included in the Amber Alert network. They are only notified of potential border-crossing kidnappers if and when U.S. investigators decide to give them a call, which could be hours or days later.
Cervantes and his children, 3-year-old Jennifer and 18-month-old Bryan, have been missing since late Sunday when the children's grandparents and uncle were found shot to death in a Queen Creek home. Cervantes, 34, is an investigative lead in the triple slaying.
Grandparents Saul Lopez-Acosta, 63, and Trinidad Castro Acosta, 51, were both shot in the head; and Jesus Manuel-Acosta, 17, the children's uncle, was shot in the abdomen, the medical examiner's office said Friday.
Investigators suspected early on that Cervantes, a Mexican immigrant, may have slipped into Mexico with the children before U.S. border agents received the alert early Monday.
And since Amber Alert doesn't reach across the border, the information was not immediately relayed to Mexican immigration officers who monitor the southbound traffic or to local police officers who could have helped in the search.
Amber Alert was created on a state-by-state basis as a way to notify the public of child abductions immediately by using radio and television, overhead highway signs and blinking Web site alerts.
The detailed descriptions of vehicles and license plates numbers, along with physical descriptions of the suspects and missing children, allow the public to help in the search.
The system also alerts all domestic law enforcement agencies, including local police and border agents. But it isn't linked to any dispatch or police communications systems in Mexico.
When U.S. border officials are notified, they are supposed to immediately start checking every car that comes through border checkpoints, instead of the usual random car inspections.
But what Amber Alert doesn't address is the possibility of a kidnapper making it past the U.S. Border Patrol.
"Right now, nothing is in place. We do (work) with Canada. It's easier with them because they are set up closer to the way the U.S. is set up. Mexico is a totally different thing. It's more difficult to work out those partnerships," said Art Brooks, chairman of the Arizona Amber Alert oversight committee and president of the Arizona Broadcaster's Association.
The Cervantes case is complicated by the fact that the Amber Alert was activated four hours after the slayings were discovered — plenty of time to drive to any of Arizona's border crossings.
"Our plan is to stop the abductor before he gets to the border. With this one, we didn't have that option," said Brooks. "If he was heading to the border, he would've been long gone."
All of Arizona's 21 other Amber Alert victims since 2002 have been located before they had the chance to get to the border, Brooks said.
Last month, a man who police believed stabbed his wife and left with his two children was arrested after a cab driver saw the Amber Alert on a highway sign, recognized the van described in the alert and followed it until police arrived.
California and New Mexico have had Amber Alert investigations in which children were found in Mexico.
Most Canadian states already have an Amber Alert system in place that can link with the U.S. system.
Amber Alert officials say the prospect of bringing Mexican law enforcement into the network is not a simple task, citing language, technology and culture barriers, but they are planning to address the issue soon.
Representatives from California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas are hoping to meet later this year or early next year with Mexican law enforcement to see if a plan is possible.
"Their technology is different. A lot of things are different and need to be worked out," Brooks said.
Not to mention the difficult question: Who would pay for it?
"There are painfully obvious things we could do via the Internet, but it all requires money to set up the infrastructure to do it," said Arizona Department of Public Safety Sgt. Terry Starner, who works with Mexican law enforcement in Nogales.
For now, communications between the U.S. and Mexico depend on law enforcement talking to law enforcement, Brooks said.
In the Cervantes case, it appears that it was days before sheriff's investigators made official contact with Mexico. grafs higher?
Comandante Raul Guillen of the Sonora state police in Nogales said sheriff's investigators contacted him Wednesday with details of the case and photos to give to officers.
"We are being very vigilant and looking for him," Guillen said Thursday. "We have a good relationship with police in the U.S. and try to help them as much as possible in these investigations."
But several other Mexican agencies were not included in the information exchange.
Mexican immigration officers who man the Nogales port of entry said they had not heard of the kidnapping when contacted by the Tribune on Wednesday.
Dispatchers at the Sonora, Mexico, emergency call center, which is similar to 911 but also links police agencies and keeps track of cases, also had not been informed.
Sheriff's spokeswoman Sgt. Kip Rustenburg said Friday that it was unclear why detectives waited until Wednesday to call the Sonora state police.
"Our guys are working day and night to eliminate, or verify, every little clue as it comes in, and one might have led them to Sonora," Rustenburg said. "We are putting all the manpower we possibly can on the homicide, literally working around the clock on this case. We are following every lead, and it could be taking them just about anywhere in the state, out of the state or out of the country."
And, if Cervantes did take the children and did make it to Mexico, officials say they will be difficult to track.
"There are still many rural communities, some don't have telephone services," Starner said. "For a police officer in these tiny pueblos with maybe only three cops total, for him to get any information about this guy is pretty remote. Their system is way different.
"But if you look at some of the traditional crimes, especially kidnappings and assaults on children, they are morally offensive in Mexico just like they are in the U.S. If they get their hands on one of those guys, they are real happy to help us."
If Cervantes is arrested by Mexican officials, the U.S. would likely enter into the extradition process. But since Mexico does not believe in the death penalty, successful extraditions usually have to come with a guarantee that the defendant won’t be executed or sentenced to life in prison.