Abductions in Phoenix, known as America's kidnapping capital, were on track to decrease modestly in 2009, said police who attributed the expected decline to better efforts at targeting the drug and immigrant smugglers who are committing a majority of those crimes.
The latest figures show Phoenix had 302 kidnappings in the first 11 months of 2009, when the city recorded an average of 27 abductions each month. The city had reached a 10-year high in 2008 with 359 kidnappings. The expected decline in 2009 would mark the first decrease since 2005, when the city had 228 kidnappings.
"I am cautiously optimistic that we are making an impact," said Sgt. Tommy Thompson, a spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department, which didn't yet have kidnapping figures available for the month of December.
Over the last several years, immigrant and drug smugglers have snatched their rivals, associates or their family members as a way to collect unpaid debt for lost trafficking loads, make quick money from crews flush with cash or as retaliation for earlier abductions.
Ransoms range from $30,000 to $1 million and sometimes include demands for large drug loads. A few kidnapping victims are killed, and others face a range of abuse, such as having their legs burned with clothing irons, their arms tied to the ceiling or their fingers broken with bricks.
In early October, authorities said a man was held captive for five days in a west Phoenix home where gunmen demanded that he pay a debt owed by his family. The victim, who investigators suspected was involved in crime, was told he wouldn't get out alive after refusing a captor's offer to pay off the debt by working as a drug runner, police said.
Investigators say the victim, who was denied food but was given water from a toilet, heard his captors talking about digging a hole and burying the victim inside it with concrete. After the victim broke free of the duct-tape that bound his wrists, he escaped through a window. Investigators later found that the concrete foundation in a bedroom had been removed and a six-foot makeshift grave had been gouged out. Wet cement was next to the hole, and plastic covered the walls, police said.
Other types of kidnappings in Phoenix include prostitution abductions, "express kidnappings" in which victims are held for a short time and forced to max out their ATM cards, and human smugglers who hold their customers hostage in stash houses so they can squeeze families for extortion money. No breakdown for the types of kidnappings was available.
The kidnappings first came to light in Phoenix in 2005, but they rose as overall violence associated with immigrant and drug smuggling intensified in Arizona, a busy hub for transporting illegal immigrants and marijuana into the country. From there, the city earned the unofficial distinction as America's kidnapping capital and drew parallels to Mexico, which has long had a kidnapping problem and is the staging point for smuggling operations.
The abductions became such a persistent problem that Phoenix police created a special squad of anti-kidnapping officers in June 2008.
Until that point, police weren't making a deep study of the problem, had robbery investigators working the cases and were merely responding to the problem as they tried to move on to the next abduction. The special squad set out to take big-picture look at the problem and has dismantled dozens of kidnapping crews.
Today, the squad tries to dig deeper into the criminal histories of kidnappers, research the associates of abduction crews and determine the hometowns of participants.
Investigators also check the immigration status of kidnappers, the frequency of their border crossings, whether federal investigations of them are under way and inquire about developments in Mexico that may be relevant.
"It allows them to look at (the kidnappers) and concentrate on that particular type of crimes, rather than being pulled away for a myriad of crimes," Thompson said.
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, the top prosecutor for metropolitan Phoenix, said he believes authorities were getting a better handle on the city's kidnapping problem.
"But you do worry that at some point that the violence from Latin America starts to spill over so aggressively that law enforcement is overwhelmed," said Thomas, whose office has a team of prosecutors specializing in kidnapping cases. "We are not at that point yet. And I do think that we are in fact seeing some positive signs in the area of addressing the kidnappings and the violence that goes with it. But it's a very serious problem."
On the Net:
Phoenix Police Department: http://phoenix.gov/POLICE/
Maricopa County Attorney's Office: http://www.maricopacountyattorney.org/