An unprecedented wave of Third World-style kidnappings by well-armed drug gangs in Phoenix has stymied city leaders and law enforcement while driving up the city’s crime rate dramatically.
Despite arrests and the dismantlement of at least 20 kidnapping “cells,” the crime wave has turned the city into the “kidnap for ransom capital” of the United States. Police say the crimes are linked to the local drug trade — the surrounding Valley of the Sun is a national distribution hub for the U.S. drug trade — but others suggest that Mexico’s narcotics war has now fully engulfed the city.
Police received 366 kidnapping-for-ransom reports last year and 359 in 2007, but authorities estimate that twice that number go unreported, according to the Los Angeles Times. In September, police spun off a separate detective unit to handle only these smuggling-related kidnappings and home-invasion robberies. Its detectives are now considered among the nation’s most expert in those crimes.
"It's about profit," said Lt. Lauri Burgett, the lead investigator assigned to the Phoenix-led regional kidnapping task force, told the Arizona Republic. "It's been a secret society in a lot of ways because so much of it goes unreported."
Kidnappings for ransom long have been a dominant feature of the drug trade in both Mexico and Colombia, where thousands have been taken hostage by guerrillas linked to the major cartels. So many thousands have been kidnapped in both countries over the last decade that radio shows featuring messages from victims’ relatives are a way of life. Kidnap retrieval is also a huge specialty among security firms based in Mexico and the United States.
In both nations, the hostage-taking wave at first stayed within drug gangs, their soldiers and their families. But kidnappers later began to target businessmen, journalists, politicians, and children of both country’s elites.
In Phoenix, though, the biggest problem now is when innocent citizens are caught up in the violence. Detectives wonder how long they can stave off the violence that has left more than 8,000 people dead in Mexico in the past two years.
"Sometimes these guys are so brazen, they hit the wrong house," Burgett said.
The near-daily kidnappings and home invasions in Phoenix often involve masked gunmen armed with high-powered assault rifles and bulletproof vests, emulating tactical strike-team maneuvers to force others to forfeit drugs or cash. Roughly half of all marijuana seized along the U.S.-Mexico border was taken on Arizona's 370-mile border with Mexico.
The targets are usually drug stash houses and their keepers scattered throughout the region. Both the perpetrators and their victims tend to be Mexicans with roots in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Phoenix has long been a destination for Sinaloans, and only the rare kidnapper is not from Sinaloa, according to detectives.
The bulk of these criminals are recruited from the ranks of poor illegal day laborers from three large Sinaloan towns: Los Mochis, Leyva, and Guasave. They sign on to kidnap gangs for between $50 and $200 a day, investigators told the Los Angeles Times.
Incidents in which gangs of gunmen pose as police are common in Arizona. On June 26, one group of gunmen — mistaken initially for military commandos or SWAT officers — fired more than 100 rounds into a drug house in a working class Phoenix neighborhood. Police later reported that Andrew Williams, a Jamaican drug dealer killed in the shootout, was targeted by the group for marijuana and cash.
The problem has plagued Phoenix and the surrounding region for years. In 2005, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, now the U.S. Homeland Security secretary, declared a "crisis" after a crime wave and again after another round of violence prompted a surge of border patrol agents in 2007. Drug dealers have waged violent battles over smuggling routes and territory as long as narcotics have been around, said Doug Coleman, a federal drug-enforcement agent in Phoenix who sees the spike in kidnappings-for-ransom as a new twist on an old tactic.
Coleman told the Arizona Republic that an escalation of kidnapping involving innocent citizens is still unlikely in the United States, where it would be counterproductive for narcotics distribution and sales. The notion of drug dealers targeting law-enforcement officials, as they've done in Mexico, or innocent Arizonans, would be counterproductive, Coleman said.
Law enforcement seized nearly 900,000 pounds of marijuana between Arizona points of entry in 2007, and more pot is seized along the Arizona-Mexico border than any other Southwestern state, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In 2008, local and federal agents dismantled the Garibaldi-Lopez Drug Trafficking Organization, which has smuggled more than 2 million pounds of marijuana worth $1 billion wholesale over the border in just five years.
The alleged members of one gang recently arrested in Phoenix, whose story was described in a recent Los Angeles Times article, painted a bleak picture of desperate illegal immigrants driven to kidnap either by gangs in Mexico or the United States.
Max Portillo, 24, told the Times he’d been having trouble with a drug smuggler in Nogales, Mexico known as El Chueco – “Twisted.” El Chueco told him of a man in Phoenix who owed him for a load of marijuana. El Chueco wanted someone to kidnap the man to get his money or drugs back.
Portillo then recruited others at local bars. Another suspect, Abel Mosqueda, told detectives he was out of work and needed money. Between the five of them, they had one gun: a black .45. They said they'd never kidnapped before.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office has a group of prosecutors working with detectives as they investigate such cases, which increases the chance of a conviction, County Attorney Andrew Thomas said.
"When you have people who are dealing with a type of offender day after day, and these are prosecutors who have selected this line of work because it appeals to them, they are very dedicated to getting the job done," Thomas said.
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