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Inside the brutal world of America's kidnapping capital

Thursday, Aug 12 2010

Page 2 of 6


"What did they look like?"

She pointed to the gun strapped to the detective's waist. "Square, like yours."

click to flip through (14) ILLUSTRATION BY GRAHAM SMITH


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"Did they assault you?" he asked, after she told him that the guards raped the other women.

She shook her head. "No."

"Are you sure?" he pressed.

She nodded, just barely.

Finally, the immigrants were turned over to federal immigration agents. A select few, needed to testify against their captors, eventually would be granted temporary visas and released to family.

Maria and her husband were not among them. They were locked in a holding tank, awaiting deportation.

Phoenix is labeled the kidnapping capital of the United States today because of drug smuggling — and human smuggling — out of Mexico.

"Kidnapping capital" is a catchphrase that U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and other elected officials use to alarm voters into buying the get-tough-on-illegals policies they're selling. But it's the smuggled immigrants — not the general public — who are overwhelmingly the primary victims.

In 2008, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, 368 reported kidnappings occurred in Phoenix, up from 160 in 1999. Almost all the abductions were inside the smuggling world. In 2008, IIMPACT detectives worked 63 kidnapping cases, investigated 49 drop houses and arrested 129 human smugglers.

Authorities say the statistics represent only a fraction of the actual kidnappings in metro Phoenix. The smattering of cases that are reported comes from victims who escaped, from families desperate to free their loved ones, or from anonymous tips.

In the absence of federal immigration reform, experts believe that immigrants will continue to risk their lives and rely on coyotes. And it doesn't seem likely that a fix will come soon.

A report published in October 2009 by the Immigration Policy Center think tank ("Breaking Down the Problems: What's Wrong With Our Immigration System?") highlights some of the major problems with federal immigration policy, including arbitrary caps on visas and an enforcement-only approach that doesn't provide practical legal alternatives for entering the United States.

For example, Congress places equal limits on the number of U.S. visas available to each nation. Mexico, where more than 1 million people have applications pending, has the same quota as Belgium. Also, federal authorities say one goal of immigration policy is to reunite families by admitting immigrants with relatives in the Unites States, but backlogs mean that it can take 20 years or longer for immigration officials to review an application for a green card.

As investigators questioned Maria, they learned that the smuggling organization that had taken her and her husband hostage also operated what police call a "violence house." If she and the others hadn't been rescued, victims whose families didn't come up with the ransom money probably would've wound up there.

Guards inside such places employ a brutal style of persuasion.

They will beat and torture victims while family members listen on the telephone. The torment continues for as long as it takes to get the money, until hostages die from their injuries, or — in rare instances — until police free them.

Investigators wanted desperately to find the violence house, but the smugglers carefully keep its location secret.

As coyotes move their human cargo from place to place, they conceal pollos under blankets or plywood. Maria's captors had stopped briefly at the violence house on their way to the dwelling where IIMPACT had found them, but she and the other hostages were covered in the back of the van, so she couldn't discern the location.

Detectives tried to piece together scant details from victims. One pollo told investigators they had traveled about 10 minutes between the two houses. Another said it was only five. The cops were never able to find the place.

Tracking down violence houses is a priority for IIMPACT officers, who have seen firsthand the chilling brutality that takes place inside them.

A cell-phone video that investigators confiscated from one such drop house, and which they allowed a reporter to view, captured a typical beating: A man with wavy black hair and a pale face can be seen lying on his side, a semi-automatic weapon just inches from his head. A coyote's hand is pushing down the man's head to keep him from moving. The victim's eyes are squeezed tightly shut. For a moment, he opens them — wide — and the horror is unmistakable. The gun still in his face, he squeezes his eyes shut. His lips are moving rapidly (there is no sound on the video). He opens and closes his eyes a second time. The hand that is holding down the victim's head suddenly goes up in the air, and — crack! — a fist slams into the side of the man's head, ripping the skin near his ear. Blood oozes down his temple. The video ends.

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