America has always been known as a place of refuge and security among people all over the world. It is the place where the victims of some of the world’s worst tragedies can start over again and put the past behind them. There is law and order. People can live the lifestyle they choose without fear of being snatched off the street when they step outside their homes. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
A city that the Los Angeles Times estimated sees 1,000 kidnappings per year would seem like a place whose citizens long for the refuge and safety of the United States. But the rude awakening for the industrialized world is that this city cannot be written off as a poverty-stricken shantytown in the developing world: it’s the fifth largest metropolitan area in the United States – Phoenix, Ariz.
Phoenix lies at the center of the drug trade coming into the United States. Its sprawling urban area and proximity to the Mexican border have made it the ideal distribution center for massive shipments of illicit substances that arrive from Mexico, including Ciudad Juarez, the murder capital of Mexico and the flashpoint in the global drug war. While a growing demand for drugs have turned Ciudad Juarez into an urban killing field, the $30 billion industry has raised kidnapping to alarming levels in Phoenix. But it’s a different kind of violence – refined, targeted, and suited to its goals north of the border.
The police headquarters in downtown Phoenix is only 400 miles from the Federales Headquarters in Ciudad Juarez, but it seems like an entire world away – and in terms of third and first world, it is. Sgt. Tommy Thompson, a police officer with more than 16 years of anti-narcotics experience, said the drug cartels operating in Mexico cannot get away with their ruthless shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality in the United States, where most of their customers and profits are located.
“We are aware that the cartels control everything in Mexico,” said Thompson. “Just about everything (drugs) on the streets of Phoenix comes from Mexico. It’s almost a given. We have drug traffickers, but nowhere do I know of a specific cartel operating in Phoenix. It’s easy to understand why. Think of El Chapo Guzman and his rivals as Costco. They want the money and don’t care which gang of local drug dealers comes down to buy from them.”
I ask Thompson about the kidnappings that have been taking place in Phoenix. He states that there are generally two kinds of kidnap victims: illegal immigrants who have been kidnapped by their handlers or drug dealers and their family members who have been abducted by rivals. In both cases, they’re usually extorted for money.
“Sometimes, immigrants are smuggled over the border only to be kidnapped and held hostage by the coyotes – human smugglers – who get them over,” said Thompson. “Often, another group of coyotes will steal them. We’ve found 50 to 60 people being held hostage by armed men in drophouses.” Thompson added that those abducted are often in rough shape when they’re rescued.
Then there are the kidnaps for ransom. Thompson said these are more complicated because so many go unreported – either because the families are afraid of retribution from the kidnappers or are afraid the police will discover their own illicit business. In many cases, the ransoms are paid and the victims are released – though it doesn’t always end so cleanly.
“There are occasions where they are tortured … it’s brutal stuff. There’s nothing more horrifying than hearing your relative being tortured over the phone,” said Thompson. This, he added, can be effective in getting a ransom payment.
To fight back against kidnapping, the Phoenix Police Department created HIKE (Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement) in the fall of 2008. The unit appears to have seen some success, as the level of reported kidnappings has dipped. However, the actual number of kidnappings taking place is not known. Almost 360 were reported in 2008, but that is thought to represent only about a third of the incidents.
“We get about 30 to 40 percent being reported, and that’s being conservative. There’s probably much more,” said Thompson.
The problems are branching out past Phoenix. A walk through the neighboring city of Tempe reveals a laid-back college town with small bars, pizza parlors and bike shops centered around Arizona State University. Yet even here, drug traffickers have found ways to operate. Last year, the Tempe Police Department conducted a raid after a nine-month investigation, seizing hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine along with dozens of guns – including assault rifles – and more than $1.5 million in cash, according to Officer Steven Carbajal and a press release put out by the department in December.
“We have been proactive in identifying, locating and arresting those dealers who have chosen to peddle their poison in our city,” said Carbajal.
Despite their complex networks throughout the demographics of Phoenix and its suburbs, it is the Hispanic community that often suffers. The day before I left Phoenix, I spent most of the night at the El Gran Mercado, a collection of vendors with an atmosphere that features musicians and a bar. After being well received and watching a singer perform a tribute to the victims of violence in Ciudad Juarez, I learned that the market had been raided last year by agents under the command of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is both loved and hated, depending on which side of the immigration debate you find yourself on. According the Sheriff’s Office, some vendors were selling smuggled goods such as DVDs and other electronics.
“Phoenix has long enjoyed its Hispanic heritage,” said Thompson. “The drug traffickers and other gangs take advantage of this and exploit our community to blend in among the population.”
Corey Hunt can be reached at his email address firstname.lastname@example.org.