Inside the brutal world of America's kidnapping capital

Thursday, Aug 12 2010

Page 5 of 6

Authorities don't know how many smuggling organizations operate in metro Phoenix. What they do know is that smugglers have brought violent crime to area cities — some of it in broad daylight.

"Life is cheap for these people," Phoenix police commander Brent Vermeer says of the kidnappers operating there.

Though the Phoenix area isn't like Mexico — where crime syndicates make fortunes kidnapping random powerful and rich people (or sometimes their children) and extorting their families — victims have been kidnapped there.

click to flip through (14) ILLUSTRATION BY GRAHAM SMITH


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At about 3 a.m. on May 5, four men with handguns stormed a Phoenix-area home where U.S. citizens Estephany Saucedo, her infant child and her mentally challenged 22-year-old sister, Karley, were sleeping. The men demanded drugs and money.

Saucedo told them that they didn't have any drugs or cash. Investigators believe that the men were looking to collect on a drug debt, possibly for 1,300 pounds of marijuana that had been stolen from them. Saucedo's boyfriend had ties to the suspected thieves, but he had been in jail for more than a month on unrelated charges.

The intruders didn't care. One way or another, they would recover their losses. The gunmen decided to kidnap Saucedo, but she told them she had to take care of her baby. So they took Karley, who has the mental capacity of a 12-year-old. The kidnappers held her in a house, demanding $50,000 from her family.

The captors assaulted the woman and threatened to cut off her fingers if the money wasn't paid. After nine days, HIKE detectives found the dwelling, and on May 19, a SWAT team freed Karley.

When investigators encounter a case in which the victim has no discernible connection to smuggling — like the one involving Karley Saucedo — they're particularly concerned.

 "A young Latino is kidnapped, and at first, you think, there must be some connection, but there isn't," says Phoenix police lieutenant Lauri Burgett, who adds that the victim is a U.S. citizen. "When I get cases like these, man, I think there are so many [kidnapping cases that] what's happening in Mexico is starting to happen here."

Federal immigration policies in the mid-1990s forced the stream of immigrants heading north into the United States to shift their routes to the Arizona desert when the feds fortified the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso with Operation Hold the Line, and in San Diego with Operation Gatekeeper.

The change intensified border security in California, and by 1997, the feds had doubled the number of border agents in San Diego, doubled California's border-security budget and increased the number of underground sensors to detect border crossers.

In Texas, fallen fences along the border were rebuilt, agents were stationed not just at established checkpoints but at popular spots for illegal crossing, and more overtime was authorized. Arrests at the Texas border dropped to fewer than 9,000 in 1994, down from 23,743 in 1992. Border Patrol agents in California arrested 531,689 immigrants along the San Diego County border in 1993; by 2002, that number had dropped to about 100,000.

During the same time, the feds approved Operation Safeguard to fortify the shared border between Arizona and Mexico. Government reports show that Arizona received an additional 100 border agents, $1 million to defray incarceration costs, and some equipment — including a couple of helicopters fitted with night-vision scopes and surveillance cameras. The investment in Arizona was much smaller than in Texas and California — and the results were different, too.

The federal plan was "intentionally driving people to Arizona and hoped that they would be deterred by the terrain," wrote Jeffrey Kaye, author of Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration.

Terrain was hardly a deterrent. More migrants came through Arizona because of the lax enforcement and because the rugged landscape offered great cover for smuggling. Also, the feds underestimated the determination of migrants in life-and-death struggles to better themselves and their families.

Gov. Jan Brewer and other Arizona politicians would like the nation to believe that average illegal immigrants are the driving force behind rampant violent crimes in Arizona. "The majority of the people who are coming to Arizona and trespassing are ... drug mules," Brewer has said.

She and others have no statistics, reports or evidence but perpetuate the notion that most illegal immigrants have direct links to drug cartels, work as drug mules or choose to come here to wallow in lives of crime and violence.

Yet, Arizona is not under attack from average illegal immigrants, who come here to find employment that is almost nonexistent in Mexico and most of Central America. In fact, it is the immigrants who are under attack — from Mexican cartels, from coyotes, from Arizona and from the U.S. federal government.

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