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.
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.
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.
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.
Like construction or restaurant work, kidnapping in Phoenix relies on cheap Mexican laborers. The grunt work, like guarding the victim, is often done by young, unemployed illegal immigrants, desperate for work, who sign on for $50 to $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.”
Phoenix police say they have never lost a victim during a rescue attempt. But detectives wondered how long their record would hold, and how long they could stave off the violence that has left more than 8,000 people dead in Mexico in the last two years.