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Column One / Mexico Under Siege

America's kidnapping capital

Mexican drug gangs bring abduction epidemic to Phoenix

February 12, 2009|Sam Quinones

PHOENIX — In broad daylight one January afternoon, on a street of ranch-style houses with kidney-shaped swimming pools, Juan Francisco Perez-Torres was kidnapped in front of his wife, daughter and three neighbors.

Two men with a gun grabbed the 34-year-old from his van and dragged him 50 yards to a waiting SUV. His wife threw rocks at the car, then gave chase in her own SUV. Neighbors in northwest Phoenix called police. Yet when police found her later, she at first denied there was a problem.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, February 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Kidnapping capital: A photo caption in Thursday's Section A with an article on ransom kidnappings in Phoenix gave the incorrect name of Jose Perez-Torres for victim Juan Francisco Perez-Torres.

On the phone later, as detectives listened in, kidnappers said Perez-Torres had stolen someone's marijuana.

But police were used to conflicting story lines by now. It was Phoenix, after all: More ransom kidnappings happen here than in any other town in America, according to local and federal law enforcement authorities. Most every victim and suspect is connected to the drug-smuggling world, usually tracing back to the western Mexican state of Sinaloa, Phoenix police report.

Arizona has become the new drug gateway into the United States. Roughly half of all marijuana seized along the U.S.-Mexico border was taken on the state's 370-mile border with Mexico.

One result is an epidemic of kidnapping that many residents are barely aware of. Indeed, most every other crime here is down. But police received 366 kidnapping-for-ransom reports last year, and 359 in 2007. Police estimate twice that number go unreported.

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 country's most expert in those crimes.

That Thursday afternoon last month, Perez-Torres' abduction fell to the unit's two most seasoned detectives, Gina Garcia and Arnulfo "Sal" Salgado, as they were about to leave work. Over the next 42 hours, the kidnapping would consume their every waking moment.

"You never know which way it's going to go," Garcia said. "Sometimes you hear the victim screaming, pleading for help, pleading for their life. You have to stay calm. Talk is huge in this business."

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Talk got serious that night, about seven hours after Perez-Torres was abducted.

Over the phone, the kidnapper sounded drunk.

"Get moving," he told Andres, a partner with Perez-Torres in a small-scale auto sales business, who pretended to be the victim's brother. "Start selling things."

He demanded $150,000.

Standing with Andres in the department's "kidnap room" -- a small office with a window, television and tape recorder -- Garcia mouthed responses. "Tell him you want to talk to the victim," she said. "Don't agree to anything."

Garcia was a child when she crossed the Mexico-Arizona border illegally with her parents and eight siblings. She grew up in a tough Phoenix barrio, obtained legal status and was steered to police work by a youth activities program. Five years ago, she joined the kidnapping unit, and has worked hundreds of cases since then.

Her job is to steady the nerves of victims' relatives as they take calls from kidnappers, who often torture their victims while talking to the families. Sometimes she steps in and, in a bit of life-or-death theater, pretends to be the victim's cousin or friend. That's when her native norteno accent pays off.

Andres, who asked that his surname not be used for this article, didn't need much calming. He pleaded well -- not too whiny, not too insistent.

"Put yourself in my place. I want to know how my brother is. I want to hear his voice," he said. "Why don't you put him on the phone for a bit?"

The kidnapper refused, said he'd call the next morning. The conversation ended.

In Phoenix, kidnappers apparently don't call after midnight; usually, they're sleeping or they're high. So Garcia and the other detectives went home. It was late, and things were off to a typical start.

Ransom kidnapping is a rare crime in America. Most cops go their entire careers without handling one. These days, most kidnappings involve a husband taking a child from an estranged wife. That's how things were in Phoenix until a few years ago.

Then things changed in Sinaloa.

Along the Pacific Coast several hours south of Arizona, Sinaloa is the state where drug smuggling in Mexico began. Most Mexican cartels originated there. Kidnapping was how they collected debts. For many years, they kidnapped other smugglers and left law-abiding citizens alone.

But after several major traffickers died or went to prison, younger gunmen stopped playing by the old rules. In the late 1990s and 2000, Sinaloa had its first rash of kidnappings of legitimate merchants and businessmen.

Phoenix first saw large numbers of ransom kidnappings reported during these years as well.

A fast-growing city, Phoenix had long been a destination for Mexican immigrants, and for Sinaloans in particular. Today, Phoenix detectives say, only the rare kidnapper is not from Sinaloa. They often come from the same Sinaloan towns: Los Mochis, Leyva, Guasave.

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