Monday, March 17, 2008

Kidnappings Cross Border into U.S. Cities

Drug traffickers and human smugglers (no explicit mention of trafficking) are being kidnapped and held for ransom by fellow criminals.


PHOENIX, USA - A woman leaving an eyeglass store is grabbed in the parking lot by four men who force her, kicking and screaming, into a pickup. The kidnappers demand a $900,000 ransom.

But police soon realize her family is holding something back and isn't fully cooperating with them. Later, investigators find out that relatives have arranged the woman's release on their own. And they discover that members of the family are heavy into marijuana trafficking.The case illustrates how a terrifyingly common crime in Latin America has moved across the border into the United States: Criminals and their family members are being kidnapped by fellow criminals and held for six-figure ransoms.

The abductions are occurring in the Phoenix area at the rate of practically one per day, and police suspect they have led to killings in which bound and bullet-riddled bodies have been found dumped in the desert.

The kidnap victims are typically drug or immigrant-smugglers, who are seen as inviting targets because they have a lot of money, they can raise large sums of cash on short notice, and they are unlikely to go to the police, for fear their own shady dealings will come to light.

"We have never had a victim that we have investigated that has been as clean as the new driven snow," said Sgt. Phil Roberts, who investigates the kidnappings. "There has always been some type of criminal element to it. Either they are criminals, drug dealers or human smugglers — or a close family member is."The kidnappers themselves are fellow traffickers who are doing it for the money or to punish their rivals.

Rise in violence, kidnappings

Phoenix had more than 340 such kidnappings reported last year, but police said the real number is much higher because many cases go unreported.The San Diego area has also seen a rise in kidnappings over the past year, with two or three reported during busy weeks, and some victims were mixed up in drug smuggling. But the hostage-taking appears to be most prevalent in Phoenix, the nation's biggest base of operations for immigrant smugglers.Kidnappings are common in Mexico, and the victims often include criminals as well as legitimate businessmen, such as bankers. Phoenix police said they believe the kidnappers here are not going after legitimate businessmen for fear their families will go to the police.The kidnappings first came to light in Phoenix three years ago but are rising as overall violence associated with immigrant smuggling intensifies in Arizona.

Drop houses and torture

Immigrant smuggling is a lucrative line of work: A ring that moves a load of 30 illegal immigrants through Arizona can gross $45,000 to $75,000.And smugglers can quickly get their hands on large sums of money — sometimes in the middle of the night. In one case, someone who turned to authorities about a kidnapping brought more than $300,000 in ransom money to the police department in cereal boxes.

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