Phoenix sees kidnaps for ransom soar

PHOENIX – In broad daylight one afternoon last month, 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 the wife later, she at first denied there was a problem.

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

Police here are accustomed to conflicting story lines. More ransom kidnappings happen in Phoenix than in any other town in the United States, according to local and federal law-enforcement authorities. Most victims and suspects are 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 at the U.S.-Mexico border was found along Arizona’s 370-mile-long stretch.

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

In September, police spun off a separate detective unit to handle these smuggling-related kidnappings and home-invasion robberies. Its detectives are considered among the country’s most expert in those crimes.

That afternoon, Juan 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.”

‘Start selling things’

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.”

The kidnapper demanded $150,000.

Standing with Andres – who asked that his surname not be used for this story – 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 and was steered to police work by a youth activities program. Five years ago, she joined the kidnapping unit. She 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 norteño accent pays off.

Andres 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.

Roots in Mexico

Ransom kidnapping is a rare crime in America. Most police go their entire careers without handling one. These days, most kidnappings involve a parent taking a child from an estranged spouse. 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 Mexican state where most Mexican cartels originated. 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, Sinaloa saw its first rash of kidnappings of legitimate merchants and businessmen.

Phoenix first saw large numbers of ransom kidnappings around the same time.

A fast-growing city, Phoenix had long been a destination for Mexican immigrants, Sinaloans in particular. Today, Phoenix detectives say, only the rare kidnapper is not from Sinaloa.

The grunt work of kidnapping, such as guarding the victim, often is done by young, unemployed illegal immigrants, desperate for work, who sign on for between $50 and $200 a day, Garcia said.

Kidnapping in Phoenix attracts immigrants whose American dream is to make it big in the underworld. In Mexico, cartels limit their options. But cartel control is weak in Phoenix. Many resort to kidnapping because, “for once, they’re the guys with the gun, the ones with the power,” Salgado said. “They are in control. In Mexico, they’re not in control.”

The deal goes down

It was 7 p.m. Friday. After several phone calls, the kidnappers demanded that money be taken to an intersection in west Phoenix.

Perez-Torres’ family had come in that afternoon with $12,000, which they said was from selling cars.

So detectives lied.

“We told the suspect we do have the 150K,” said Sgt. Phil Roberts, a unit supervisor. “We’re going to tell him whatever he wants.”

The case passed to Salgado, who went undercover and accompanied Andres into west Phoenix.

Salgado set out that night in a pickup truck with Andres.

Few west Phoenix residents perceived the ballet of two unwitting suspects and dozens of officers that silently swept back and forth through their neighborhood.

Kidnappers called to tell Salgado and Andres to drive around with their windows down. They ordered them to stop at a gas station, then to get out and raise their shirts. Other officers watched from the shadows, giving them a wide berth.

For more than an hour the kidnappers ordered Salgado and Andres through maneuvers, looking for signs of police, apparently unaware of the undercover officers silently cruising the area looking for them.

Then things happened fast. Officers were following a suspicious bronze Chevy truck when the driver bolted down a residential street and into a driveway. Two men jumped out and ran. One dropped a gun.

Officers grabbed them after a short chase and before they could call their accomplices. If anything happened to Perez-Torres, officers told them, they’d be charged with murder. The two men caved. He was being held, they said, in a house in Mesa, a half-hour away.

A caravan of police now sped for Mesa. They arrived just as three men were pushing Perez-Torres into a brown truck; a black Chrysler idled nearby. Both sped off, but they didn’t get far. Police arrested three more men.

By 9:30 that night, Juan Perez-Torres was safe, and five of his alleged kidnappers were about to be questioned.

They told detectives a bleak border tale.

Max Portillo, 24, said he’d been having trouble with a drug smuggler in Nogales, Mexico, known as “El Chueco” – Twisted. El Chueco said Perez-Torres owed him for a load of marijuana. El Chueco wanted someone to kidnap Perez-Torres.

Portillo said he recruited the others at bars. Another suspect, Abel Mosqueda, said he met Portillo at the Gran Mercado. Mosqueda told detectives he was out of work and needed money.

But detectives didn’t have time for the case’s murky motives. They had the kidnappers’ confessions and other evidence. Prosecutors had been getting plea bargains of 12 years in prison for less. In a few months, they’d have trouble remembering the case.

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