Phoenix Number Two Kidnapping Capital as Drug Cartel Wars Intensify

Phoenix Number Two Kidnapping Capital as Drug Cartel Wars Intensify

Horrible images of kidnap victims tortured and held for ransom have long been the norm in Mexico, the number one kidnapping capital of the world. There, judges, police officers and others are targeted by the Mexican drug cartels and abductions are as common as graffiti-marked buildings. But the kidnapping problem has spilled over to the United States, specifically to Phoenix, Arizona. America’s fifth largest city, Phoenix has a population of 1.6 million people, and covers an area of 517 square miles (larger than Los Angeles). The threat is ever-present on Phoenix streets – and has been since 2005 when the metro area gained the dubious distinction of America’s kidnapping capital. With its numbers right behind Mexico, Phoenix is the number two kidnapping capital of the world.

Numbers Tell the Story

The kidnapping problem in Phoenix, however, as widely reported by various news agencies in the past year, involves victims who are either illegal aliens or connected to the drug trade. Some officials have commented that all the Phoenix kidnappings are connected to illegal immigration but that the actual numbers (359 in 2007, a 10-year high, 366 in 2008, and 302 for the first 11 months of 2009) account for just one-third of the reported kidnappings taking place in the metropolitan area. People are just not reporting all the kidnappings.

The situation has gotten so bad that the fear is anyone who looks like they have money is in danger of being kidnapped. According to news stories, ransoms have ranged from $30,000 to $1 million. Some have even included demands for large drug loads. An L.A. Times story in February 2009 quoted Phoenix police saying that most every victim and suspect is connected to the drug smuggling world, usually tracing back to the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Phoenix police say many come from the Sinaloan towns of Guasave, Leyva, and Los Mochis.

While drug cartels control everything in Mexico, in the U.S., and Arizona in particular, it’s a slightly different story. Police say control by the cartels is weak in Phoenix, and the kidnappers with guns are the ones in power. And they use it.
Kidnappers reportedly recruit workers by going to popular bars in Phoenix such as Bronco Bar, Senor Lucky’s, and El Grand Mercado, according to the Times’ story.

Arizona has become the gateway to the U.S. for Mexican drug trafficking. Roughly half of all the marijuana intercepted along the U.S.-Mexican border is seized along the state’s 370-mile border, which is criticized as having a “lack of border security.”
Dealing with the “money drops” entails tying up 50 to 60 police officers for each ransom demand, officials say. That’s to ensure the protection of the officers as well as the victims.

Victims Snatched Off the Street

It can happen anywhere in the city, from a busy street to back-alley shack. Time of day doesn’t matter, either, with many abductions taking place in broad daylight. The brazenness of the kidnappers is similar to the Mexican experience where drug smugglers or immigrants snatch up their rivals, associates or family members in order to pay unpaid debts for lost drug trafficking loads. Sometimes they kidnap victims who’ve just scored huge sums of money from a drug load. Sometimes the abduction is in retaliation for an earlier kidnapping.

For some of the kidnap victims, the result is death. Others are abused or tortured. Some victims have their hands chopped off, their fingers crushed with bricks, or their legs burned with clothing irons. They are often tied to the ceiling, denied food or drink, and repeatedly told they would be killed and buried in a hole that’s dug right in front of them. The lucky ones who manage to escape tell tales of seeing freshly-prepared cement mix adjacent a crudely-dug grave and seeing others murdered before their eyes – knowing they were next.

Other instances include “express kidnappings,” where prostitutes are captured, forced to max out their ATM cards and holed up in stash houses, awaiting extortion funds squeezed from their families.

In Mexico, estimates of annual kidnappings range from about 100 per day to twice that many (again, because many people fear reprisals and refuse to report the abductions). As kidnapping cases continue to escalate across the border in Mexico, the fear is that even more such violence is headed to the U.S. border states.

Phoenix Fights Back

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, the city’s top prosecutor, told an Associated Press reporter in December 2009 that he thinks the authorities are getting a better handle on the kidnapping problem.

In January of last year, the employer sanction legislation took effect. In May, police officers were given authority to question criminal suspects about the status of their citizenship, and to contact federal immigration and Customs Enforcement officials if they believed the suspect was in the United States illegally.

In June 2008, Phoenix police created a special squad of anti-kidnapping officers, dubbed the “Home Invasion Task Force.” This specialized unit digs deeper into the kidnappers’ criminal history, researches their associates, determines participants’ hometowns, checks kidnappers’ immigration status, how frequently they make border crossings, and whether there’s a federal investigation of them. Task force members also inquire about developments in Mexico that may be relevant.

Citizens are urged to report any suspicious activity they see, and the Phoenix police department posts “hot spots” for crime on a city map available through the city’s website at According to Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, violent crime is down 18 percent through November 2009 vs. the same period in 2008. Phoenix Public Safety Manager Jack Harris attributes the decrease to arresting repeat offenders, saying “targeting the most serious offenders has had significant results…particularly in dismantling organized crime syndicates, gangs and drug dealers.”

Why is this Relevant?

Consider the impact of illegal or street drugs in America. According to the National Drug Control Strategy, from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), marijuana has long been the mainstay of drug trafficking organizations, accounting for much of their illicit revenue. Federal, state, and local and tribal authorities are increasing their cooperation on the border with Mexico, the entry point for most of the cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana into the U.S. that winds up on the streets.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), working in coordination with its Mexican counterparts, supports continued drug enforcement operations, and to provide training, public awareness, intelligence collection and operational assistance to reduce trafficking of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana to the United States.

The National Drug Threat Assessment 2009, from the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), reports that “Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) are the greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States. They control most of the U.S. drug market and have established varied transportation routes, advanced communications capabilities, and strong affiliations with gangs in the United States.” Further, the report states that “members of most Mexican cartels – Sinaloa, Gulf, Juarez, and Tijuana – maintain working relationships with many street gangs.”

The Southwest Border Regions, specifically Arizona, Southern California, New Mexico, West and South Texas, are part of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program, enhancing and coordinating drug control efforts among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The coordination, equipment, technology and additional resources provides these agencies with the means to combat drug trafficking and its harmful consequences in the United States.

In March, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Newsweek that “there’s always been a certain amount of violence between drug-trafficking organizations and the like along the border… But now, for example in cities like Phoenix, there’s an increase in kidnappings that I relate to this increase in the drug war in Mexico.”

Phoenix, as a prime distribution point for illegal drugs in the U.S., is a hub of cartel-related violence. This matters a great deal, since violence, left unchecked, breeds only more violence and lawlessness – to the point where civilization ceases to exist and becomes more a matter of sheer survival.

As reported in a Find Law Knowledge Base article, kidnappings for ransom have become a popular industry for coyotes (those who smuggle human traffic) and cartels to make extra money, intimidate rivals, law enforcement and the general public. Immigration issues cloud the picture, since victims fear either deportation or reprisals to their families, and often keep silent. As such, kidnappings may become a “way of life” for many more Arizonans and others.

Why should we care if drug traffickers kill each other? First of all, the victims of kidnappings and deaths are not all drug smugglers or illegal immigrants. Many are innocent people, often family members, friends, or bystanders. Second, the violence affects all of us through increased (or decreased) availability of drugs on the street, the increasing potency of the drugs (and higher profits to the traffickers), and spillover effect to communities and towns around those initially affected. If we don’t care, and don’t act, to curb this lawlessness, drug- or immigration-related kidnappings and violence threaten to spread far beyond Phoenix – maybe even to your city or town.

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