At age 53, Robert Cikraji's health was failing. The social-science professor had always been a sickly sort. In high school, he spent two years in bed with pneumonia; his lungs never fully recovered.
So it was of little surprise when his respiratory system collapsed again in 1998. For one scary week, he lay in Mansfield General's intensive care unit. When he regained consciousness, his doctor greeted him with an admonition: If Cikraji wanted to pull another 15 years from his life, he'd better start looking for a warm, dry place to live.
Cikraji immediately thought of Mexico. The weathered professor, with his wisps of white hair pushed to the side, always had a soft spot for the country's salty shores and white beaches. At the University of Dayton, he'd spent a semester in the Mexican mountains, helping with a clean-water project. And as a professor at Ashland University, he'd written a book on the city of Chichen Itza.
"I've always been intrigued by the architecture of the Aztecs and Mayans," Cikraji says. "Maybe because it wasn't possible for me to drive to Europe."
With his wife Kaori and their young son, Cikraji flew to Cancùn, looking for an affordable waterfront place near the airport. He found it in Solymar, a sprawling collection of luxury villas, a main hotel, and time-share condos.
For a year, Cikraji spent his afternoons on a patio working on a children's book about Mayan cities. At night, he relaxed at the hotel bar, striking up conversations with residents, guests, and bartenders. His pale skin was bronzed to the color of a penny, and his mind relaxed for the first time in ages.
By 2000, the resort announced that it was getting a new owner. Residents greeted Jean Succar Kuri with cheer. Under the old owner, the common area hadn't been kept up. The roof was leaking, the pool was collecting debris, and residents were having little luck subletting their condos.
Succar lived in both Mexico and the United States, and owned a string of popular shops and restaurants throughout Cancùn and California. He promised to turn Solymar into a first-rate destination.
But the new owner soon proved a man of mystery. He built a private drive to his gated, oceanfront villa, where he arrived each day in an SUV with tinted windows. And though Mexican newspapers reported that the Solymar was completely booked, Cikraji saw few visitors at the hotel. At night, he often shared the pool lounge and restaurant with bored resort staff.
Then there were the men who pulled up to the hotel each day -- always single, arriving without wives or kids. Though they were dropped off at the curb, they never actually entered the resort. Instead, a taxi would soon whisk them away again.
Cikraji became suspicious. In Mexico, hotels are known for laundering money. With their bars, restaurants, and unverifiable occupancy rates, they're the perfect venues for washing dirty money clean.
The professor came to a sad conclusion: He'd retired to the center of an international money-laundering ring.
Jean Succar didn't present himself in the distinguished manner of the hospitality industry. With a head like a bowling ball, the native of Lebanon stood just 5 foot 4, compensating with a Napoleonic posture and commanding voice. He could be charming one instant, hostile and stony-eyed the next.
"He was just an ordinary man, not by nature an intimidating person," says Alfonso Tamayo, a Solymar resident. "But he tried to make people afraid of him."
Tamayo once overheard Succar bragging about having had an enemy shot. And the owner was often seen walking hand in hand with girls as young as eight. There was something about the leering, hungry way he looked at the kids that gave residents chills.
One American resident suspected that Succar was having sex with the kids. Tamayo thought the theory absurd, but couldn't ignore the oddities. Nor could Cikraji.
Once, early on in the takeover, the professor was called to Succar's villa to talk about a resort matter. When he arrived, Succar was on the phone. Outside, a young child sat by the pool, fiddling with her bathing suit. When the owner turned toward her, the young girl lifted up her tunic to expose herself. "Jean, Jean," she said. "I think I have an infection."
"Oh, it does look like an infection," Succar replied nonchalantly. "I'll call the doctor."
Cikraji was upset by the incident, especially when a friend recounted a similar tale. The man had seen Succar walking to his villa with a few preteen girls one day. Succar smiled and gestured toward the girls, as if they were horses on parade at an auction. "Look what I have for you," he said to the man suggestively. "I'll give to you any of them."
But Cikraji still suspected drugs or money laundering. So he took his concerns to the U.S. consulate, where he was referred to the Drug Enforcement Agency office in Mérida, three hours away. Officials told him to keep a journal of what he saw.
Cikraji took to the role like a young cop with his first badge. He'd always fancied himself an unofficial officer of morality and rule. More than once, he'd been accused of possessing an overdeveloped sense of justice.
In the '70s, he'd worked with César Chávez on the famous grape and lettuce boycotts. As a professor at Ashland University in the mid-1990s, he'd published papers about ways to accommodate people with AIDS. At the time, some people -- including his conservative Protestant employers -- still thought of AIDS as a gay disease. The university didn't take well to his suggestions. Cikraji persisted anyway.
"Good or bad, Bob's not willing to compromise his views on things," explains his longtime Cleveland lawyer, Kevin Roberts.
Cikraji especially loathed the drug trade, not so much for the drugs themselves, but for the way it exploited its low-end labor. So from his perch on the stairs overlooking the resort entrance, he spent 15 months dutifully recording license plates, sending them to the DEA.
"Bob's a high-energy, highly motivated guy," says friend Joe Lloid, a retired anesthetist now living in Denver. "He's no quitter."
But nothing came of his reports, and his evidence never rose above suspicion.
It wasn't until Mexican TV blew up Succar's real scheme that Cikraji's fears proved founded.
When Cikraji went to see friend Shannon Santora in November of 2003, her hands were shaking, eyes round and wild. "You won't believe what's on TV and in the paper," she gushed. "Succar has been running a pedophile ring from the Solymar."
A former victim had lured Succar to a restaurant, where she baited him into a confession -- all while secretly videotaping the meeting. The tape was now exploding on Mexican television.
In the short segment, the victim, face obscured by shadows, sits opposite Succar. The woman asks the ages of his recent conquests.
"Some 16, 17 years old," he brags. "All of them bleed with me."
Disgusted, the victim questions Succar about having sex with a five-year-old girl.
"I only touched her once, her and her friend," he says defensively.
But how can he do this to children this young? the woman pleads, her voice breaking.
Succar confesses that it "drives me crazy to do it like this . . . That's my vice, it is my stupidity." But he goes on, eyes glazed, to describe his special technique for penetrating young children -- "two fingers" inside, he says, before he "rams" them with his "dick." He smirks as he recounts the experience.
The video cuts off with a gleeful Succar explaining how it felt to be inside the victim's younger sister. "I felt really great . . . I felt -- shit, man! -- that I had won the lottery!"
In the coming days, more young victims approached Mexican police. Succar, they explained, presided over a worldwide pedophile ring. He had a website, inviting predators from around the globe to stay at his resort. The children said they'd been molested on videotape, which Succar provided to customers as a "souvenir" of their time in Cancùn.
Mexican police launched a manhunt. Interpol was called. But Succar was nowhere to be found.
Cikraji thought it impossible for the resort owner to escape the country quickly. So he went to Succar's villa, where workers were scrambling back and forth from two large trucks. They carried bulging garbage bags and kept glancing worriedly toward the road.
When one worker set a bag down, Cikraji peeked in. It was filled with videotapes.
Cikraji grabbed the bag, then stopped.
"I thought about doing it, but it's still a theft offense," the professor explains.
Later that night, he chastised himself for his cowardice. The videos, no doubt, would have nailed Succar. They also would have helped identify the men who came to Mexico for underage girls.
If he had another chance, he vowed, he would find the bravery to act. "I want these people to shit their pants. I want them to worry who's going to see them having sex with a seven-year-old."
On November 26, 2003, the U.S. issued a warrant for Succar's arrest. Authorities believed he'd fled to the States.
U.S. Marshals traced him to Los Angeles. But before they could arrest Succar, someone in Mexico tipped him off.
It would be three months before they tracked his cell-phone calls to Arizona. On February 5, 2004, marshals apprehended Succar during a traffic stop. He was charged with four counts of sexual assault.
A few weeks after the arrest, Cikraji flew to Ohio to visit his wife. The previous year, Kaori had left Mexico to work on her doctorate at the University of Dayton. He called Reid Pixler, the assistant U.S. Attorney in Arizona in charge of the case. They talked for 45 minutes; Cikraji told Pixler about the tapes he'd seen in Succar's villa. They promised to stay in touch.
A month later, Cikraji flew back to Cancùn. He tried to resume work on his children's book, but the words wouldn't come. Residents and staff were on edge.
Some 40 burly, gangster-looking men had taken up residence, roaming the resort and glaring menacingly at residents.
"They looked like they were members of a garrison," Tamayo says. "We were afraid that there was going to be an armed confrontation."
After Succar fled, his lawyer, Andrade Abogados, had assumed control of the property as collateral for unpaid legal bills. The men had been sent by Succar's younger brother, Edmund, to reassert family ownership. A turf war was about to take place.
Cikraji, thinking the U.S. government should know about this, told his friend Tamayo to get a camera. Tamayo kneeled behind a building, snapping photos before a goon caught him.
"Give me your camera," the man growled.
Tamayo handed it over. The goon took out the camera's memory card, threw it over his shoulder, then handed it back to Tamayo, warning him against pursuing his interest in photography.
Cikraji e-mailed Pixler about the experience.
"Every U.S. citizen here is afraid," he wrote. "I wish this was a fabrication . . . It is not."
Cikraji decided to see what information he could get from the lawyer. Perhaps Abogados had access to the videotapes. They agreed to meet at the lawyer's office.
Cikraji e-mailed his plans to Pixler: "I know this is crazy but I set up a private meeting tonight with succars ex attorney . . . please understand what I am going to do. I am going to get the video and documents . . . please help me from your side. If this goes down I will do it quickly and surgically . . . please alert DEA or others that this transfer may be made in the next 48 hours."
Pixler quickly responded: "There is a DEA agent on his way to Cancùn from Mérida . . . He is going on other business and can meet you if you will call him. Do not call from your home in case the line is tapped. Either use a cell phone or a pay phone . . . please do not take any dangerous action. We cannot be responsible if you get yourself injured."
At dusk, Cikraji and a friend drove to Abogados' downtown office. The place was dark. No one answered the door. The two men waited for 45 minutes before giving up and heading home.
Cikraji would soon learn the reason for the lawyer's absence.
At around 2 a.m., Cikraji was awakened by gunfire. He tiptoed outside, where gunshots exploded like firecrackers. People were shouting in rapid-fire Spanish. Shards of glass lay scattered about like sparkling jewels. The white sand was splattered with blood.
Cikraji remained in the shadows, unable to see the faces of the men. In the distance, he heard the blare of sirens, then the sound of stampeding feet. Cikraji raced back to his room.
The next morning, staffers rushed about the resort, carrying sheets and towels to clean up the blood. Cikraji watched from the safety of his room. "This is where I went to retire?"
When U.S. authorities heard of the shooting, they sent out a press release, urging Americans to leave the Solymar. Pixler warned Cikraji to extricate himself from the situation. It had become too dangerous.
"We all do not want you to insert yourself any further into this matter," Pixler wrote. "Don't trust any local authorities . . . keep your head down."
Cikraji ignored the warning.
One spring evening, he called up Lydia Cacho, a Mexican journalist writing an exposé on Succar's pedophile ring.
The two met at a coffee shop. Cacho, a stunning brunette with wavy brown hair and piercing eyes, sat at a wrought iron table next to her bodyguard. Since word leaked that she was writing a book about Succar, she'd been receiving death threats.
Cacho revealed that Abogados had approached her about selling the tapes. For $25,000, they were hers.
Cacho rejected the offer; she didn't pay for information. She hadn't heard from Abogados since.
But the news gave Cikraji hope. He arranged another meeting with the lawyer. "You know it would be in the best interest of a lot of people if Succar went to jail in the United States," he told Abogados. "We could really do a job if tapes were in the U.S. authorities' hands."
Abogados remained noncommittal, but left the door open for future negotiations.
For the next month, the two exchanged e-mails. But the talks were like a Mexican dance -- two steps forward, three steps back.
Then Mexican authorities located a hard drive containing hundreds of photos of naked children. Back in the states, Pixler called off Cikraji's negotiations.
Cikraji had the sinking suspicion that this was becoming a Mexican case. The United States, it seemed, wasn't interested in prosecuting Succar on American soil, though American pedophiles had traveled to the Solymar.
More alarming, U.S. officials seemed to know little about the case. Pixler, for instance, was unaware of the explosive videotape played on Mexican television. And though Cikraji had located a former Succar employee, Irma Caamel, who claimed to have arranged for several underage children to be sent to Florida and California, the U.S. government never contacted her after Cikraji passed along the information.
The professor was incensed. The feds knew Succar was running a worldwide pedophile ring -- perhaps even sending his victims to American soil -- but they didn't seem the least bit interested in investigating.
Last year, Lydia Cacho published The Devils of Eden. Her book on Succar made her a celebrity, but also a target.
Cacho implicated powerful officials. One, Jose Kamel Nacif Borge, was a wealthy Mexican textile executive known as "The Denim King." Cacho identified Nacif as Succar's accomplice and protector.
A furious Nacif denied the allegations and sued for defamation. In Mexico, defamation is a criminal offense, which can result in up to four years in prison. And the truth is not a defense.
In December 2005, police barged into Cacho's office. They took her to a prison in Puebla, a city 20 hours from Cancùn. It happened to be Nacif's home base. During the ride, police taunted her with threats of rape. Cacho spent 24 hours in jail before she was freed on bail.
The officers' threats, it turned out, were not bluster. Two months later, a Mexican television station received tapes of phone calls between Nacif and top Mexican officials -- including the governor of Puebla -- discussing plans to have Cacho raped.
In one, the governor of Puebla is heard telling Nacif that "I finished nailing that fucking bitch yesterday. I told her that in Puebla the law is respected . . . I sent her a message; now let's see how she responds."
Nacif responds that "a beautiful bottle of cognac" is on its way as a thank-you present.
When the tapes aired, Mexico's federal government intervened, charging Nacif and other government officials with crimes against the state. But the defamation charges stood.
Over the fall, Cacho, with whom Scene communicated briefly before losing contact, asked Cikraji to testify about all he had seen in Mexico.
In October, Cikraji testified for four hours about his experiences at the Solymar. He identified pictures of the children he'd seen hanging around the resort.
Irma Caamel also testified that she helped arrange for young children to be transported to the United States. A taped conversation between Nacif and Succar was recently aired on Mexican television, corroborating her testimony. In it, Nacif is heard soliciting Succar to "bring little girls to Florida for sex."
On January 3, the Mexican Supreme Court officially cleared Cacho of all charges.
The U.S. didn't bother to wait for Cacho's trial before sending Succar back to Mexico. Last July, U.S. District Judge David Duncan ordered his extradition.
It's hard to tell how much Duncan knew before making his decision, since he declined comment for this story. Prosecutor Reid Pixler is currently in Iraq. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Arizona said he was unavailable for comment.
In an e-mail sent to Cikraji in March of 2004, Pixler assured the professor that the Department of Justice was working hard on the case. Trying to find out what happened to the children allegedly sent to the States is a "great deal like trying to find a needle in a haystack," Pixler warned.
But the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children doesn't know anything about the case, says spokeswoman Barbara Petito. "Law enforcement might still be investigating it," she suggests. To this day, however, no U.S. agent has ever contacted Caamel, Cikraji alleges.
After Scene repeatedly questioned government officials, the FBI declared two weeks ago that it would launch a probe.
Meanwhile, the Solymar is now run by Succar's younger brother. Residents remain terrified and unable to rent out rooms.
"We have no control over security," says one, who doesn't want her name used for fear of retaliation. "It's pretty intimidating."
Cikraji is too scared to return. He hasn't been back to Mexico since his testimony in October. "I'm not interested in being caught between a bunch of goons," he says. But in his nightmares, he still hears the cries of the kids he couldn't protect.