Page last updated at 21:54 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 22:54 UK

Kidnapping problem grips Phoenix

By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Phoenix, Arizona

Sergeant Tommy Thompson greeted us with a smile and a proposal.

A police vehicle parked in front of a house that has been cordoned off by police, Phoenix, Arizona
Police cordon off the scene of a kidnapping in Phoenix

"There's just been a kidnapping on 38th and Portland, wanna come along?"

We had gone to meet him to discuss the wave of abductions that has been sweeping the city of Phoenix.

Officially, there were 368 last year - about one a day.

But, unofficially, the authorities acknowledge there have been many more.

Almost all are connected to people-smuggling and drug-smuggling rings, confined to the Spanish-speaking immigrant communities.

'Coyotes' and 'pollos'

As we drove to the scene in an unmarked green pick-up truck, Sgt Thompson explained that there were two distinct yet interconnected types of kidnapping.

In one kind, people who have been smuggled across the border, the so-called "pollos" - or chickens - are told by the smugglers, or "coyotes", that the price of their passage has suddenly gone up.

They are held - often in large groups - in safe houses until their relatives pay up.

If the money does not come, the pollos may be coerced into helping the coyotes hold other hostages. In some cases, they are killed.

Phoenix Police Sergeant Tommy Thompson
Sgt Thompson said violence had not spilled over into the mainstream

The other sort of abduction is thought to be connected to the Mexican drug cartels.

In these cases the ransom money is much higher, reflecting the fact that the victims often have mysterious sources of cash.

As we arrived at the scene of that morning's kidnapping, it soon became clear that - on initial inspection - it fell into the latter category.

On a quiet suburban street, a 35-year-old unemployed car mechanic had been abducted in broad daylight by three men in ski masks.

Sgt Thompson left us in the car as he consulted with officers from the Home Invasion and Kidnapping Task Force.

The unit was set up last year after the kidnappers began to use more sophisticated methods, which included dressing up in police-style outfits.

He returned, having smelt a rat.

"Some of the things in his lifestyle don't add up," he said of the victim.

"The number of cars he has, the furnishings in his house."

Brutal methods

Sgt Thompson was keen to stress that crime is down in Phoenix and that, apart from the odd case of mistaken identity, the kidnappings had not spilled out into the wider society.

Nevertheless on a two-day trip to the city the evidence of kidnapping was not hard to find.

At a day labourers' pick-up spot behind a shabby, nondescript row of shops, we met a group of Hispanic men who were waiting for work.

The atmosphere was laid back. Some were throwing around a football, others were playing a game of draughts.

About half of them, it turned out, had been kidnapped.

Antonio Bustamente
They'll sell their houses in Mexico, or resort to crimes there, just to prevent the homicide of their loved one, who's fallen into the hands of the 'coyotes'
Antonio Bustamente, lawyer

Only one agreed to talk and even then he asked us not to use his real name.

Although people-smuggling gangs do not spread the same degree of terror as the cartels, their methods can be brutal.

It is not unknown for relatives to be phoned and forced to listen to the screams of the hostages as they are being attacked.

The victim, who we agreed to call Luis, had come from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

He had paid a coyote $1,000 (£675) to cross the border, as agreed, but when he got to the US he was told the rate had gone up to $2,500.

He was brought to Phoenix, imprisoned for a week and told he would be killed. He was only released when his frightened relatives came up with the cash.

"It wasn't really worth it," he told me, "but what can you do?"

Antonio Bustamente, a Phoenix lawyer who has worked on several kidnap cases, says the kidnappers' methods are highly effective.

"Somehow, people move heaven and earth to get the money. They'll sell their houses in Mexico, or resort to crimes there, just to prevent the homicide of their loved one, who's fallen into the hands of the 'coyotes'."

Sheriff's influence

He said he thought there were "hundreds, possibly thousands" of people currently being held in Phoenix.

"It's a good business if you're brutal enough," he said.

The state's top law enforcement officer, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, admits that the official statistics only scratch the surface of the problem.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard
The cartels are much more flexible than we are
Terry Goddard
Arizona Attorney General

He is happy that the federal authorities are starting to take the problem seriously, but he is concerned about the danger of what he calls "a scattergun approach".

"The cartels are much more flexible than we are," he said.

"They're not controlled by artificial state or national boundaries. They will adapt their techniques almost instantly. We have to pay much more attention to that and have a co-ordinated approach."

He is also concerned - and he is not alone - by the influence of Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Mr Arpaio is an attention-grabbing elected law enforcement official who briefly had his own reality show, and who has made his name, in part, by taking a very tough line with illegal immigrants.

Attorney General Goddard thinks that the sheriff's actions - and the extra level of fear they have spread in the Hispanic community - have actually hindered law enforcement.

"It's been highly depressing when it comes to the idea of community policing. The idea that the community together with the police can be the eyes and ears against crime," he said.

With drug-related violence increasing dramatically south of the border, he is worried about the consequences of failing to tackle the problems underlying the kidnappings.

"They had 6,200 casualties in Mexico last year. Almost 1,200 already this year," he said.

"That that kind of open warfare could sweep into the United States is the most immediate problem to be averted... and I believe it's going to take an awful lot of effort to do that."

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