Pubdate: Thu, 12 Feb 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Column One, Front Page
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Sam Quinones, Reporting from Phoenix
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark:  Mexico Under Siege (Series)

Mexico Under Siege


Juan Francisco Perez-Torres was abducted last month in front of his
home and ransom demanded. Hundreds of such incidents occur each year
in Phoenix, and Mexican drug-smuggling is usually involved.

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.

In September, police spun off a separate detective unit to handle only
these smuggling-related kidnappings and home-invasion robberies. Its
detectives are now considered among the country's most expert in those

That Thursday afternoon last month, Perez-Torres' abduction fell to
the unit's two most seasoned detectives, Gina Garcia and Arnulfo "Sal"
Salgado, as they were about to leave work. Over the next 42 hours, the
kidnapping would consume their every waking moment.

"You never know which way it's going to go," Garcia said. "Sometimes
you hear the victim screaming, pleading for help, pleading for their
life. You have to stay calm. Talk is huge in this business."

Talk got serious that night, about seven hours after Perez-Torres was

Over the phone, the kidnapper sounded drunk.

"Get moving," he told Andres, a partner with Perez-Torres in a
small-scale auto sales business, who pretended to be the victim's
brother. "Start selling things."

He demanded $150,000.

Standing with Andres in the department's "kidnap room" -- a small
office with a window, television and tape recorder -- Garcia mouthed
responses. "Tell him you want to talk to the victim," she said. "Don't
agree to anything."

Garcia was a child when she crossed the Mexico-Arizona border
illegally with her parents and eight siblings. She grew up in a tough
Phoenix barrio, obtained legal status and was steered to police work
by a youth activities program. Five years ago, she joined the
kidnapping unit, and has worked hundreds of cases since then.

Her job is to steady the nerves of victims' relatives as they take
calls from kidnappers, who often torture their victims while talking
to the families. Sometimes she steps in and, in a bit of life-or-death
theater, pretends to be the victim's cousin or friend. That's when her
native norteno accent pays off.

Andres, who asked that his surname not be used for this article,
didn't need much calming. He pleaded well -- not too whiny, not too

"Put yourself in my place. I want to know how my brother is. I want to
hear his voice," he said. "Why don't you put him on the phone for a

The kidnapper refused, said he'd call the next morning. The
conversation ended.

In Phoenix, kidnappers apparently don't call after midnight; usually,
they're sleeping or they're high. So Garcia and the other detectives
went home. It was late, and things were off to a typical start.

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

But after several major traffickers died or went to prison, younger
gunmen stopped playing by the old rules. In the late 1990s and 2000,
Sinaloa had its first rash of kidnappings of legitimate merchants and

Phoenix first saw large numbers of ransom kidnappings reported during
these years as well.

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.

Certain Phoenix bars -- Senor Lucky's, Bronco Bar and El Gran Mercado
-- are known as places where kidnappers recruit, much the way builders
go to Home Depot to hire day laborers, police say.

The day Perez-Torres was kidnapped, police raided a south Phoenix tire
shop and found shotguns, ammunition and ballistic vests.

The business belonged to a man they suspected of setting up a
kidnapping and home-invasion empire. He recruited illegal immigrants,
provided them with criminal work and a place to live at the shop, then
would order them around like a small-town baron, police said.
Occasionally he'd hit them and interrogate them.

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

It was 7 p.m. Friday. After several phone calls, the kidnappers
ordered money to be taken to an intersection in west Phoenix.

Perez-Torres' family had come in that afternoon with $12,000, which
they said was from selling cars.

So detectives lied.

"We told the suspect we do have the 150K," said Sgt. Phil Roberts, a
unit supervisor. "We're going to tell him whatever he wants."

The case now passed to Salgado, who went undercover, accompanying
Andres -- still posing as Perez-Torres' brother -- into west Phoenix.

Nine years ago, Salgado was the first Phoenix detective to investigate
the smuggler kidnappings. He comforted the victim's family,
negotiated, oversaw rescues. He learned to listen for compassion or

For about a year, Salgado worked alone. The caseload grew incessantly.
Today, probably no detective in America has worked more ransom
kidnapping cases.

During an investigation, Salgado barely sleeps. When it's over, he
crashes hard. Twice, dentists prescribed mouth guards to keep him from
grinding his teeth. He chewed through each in a week.

To hear Salgado describe it, each kidnapping is like a jazz
improvisation, with every move creating two or three new
possibilities, which detectives must anticipate, depending on the
suspect's tone of voice and what's come before.

"None are alike, and they're all the same," Salgado said. "You don't
know what to expect, but you know what to expect."

With that in mind, Salgado set out that night in a pickup truck with

Few west Phoenix residents perceived the ballet of two unwitting
suspects and dozens of officers that silently swept back and forth
through their neighborhood.

Kidnappers called to tell Salgado and Andres to drive around with
their windows down. They ordered them to stop at a gas station, then
to get out and raise their shirts. Other officers watched from the
shadows, giving them a wide berth.

For more than an hour kidnappers ordered Salgado and Andres through
maneuvers, looking for signs of cops, apparently unaware of the
undercover officers silently cruising the area looking for the kidnappers.

Then things happened fast. Officers were following a suspicious bronze
Chevy truck, when the driver bolted down a residential street and into
a driveway. Two men jumped out and ran. One dropped a gun.

Officers grabbed them after a short chase and before they could call
their accomplices. If anything happened to Perez-Torres, officers
said, they'd be charged with murder. The two men caved. He was being
held, they said, in a house in Mesa, half an hour away.

A caravan of cops now sped for Mesa. They got there as three men were
pushing Perez-Torres into a brown truck; a black Chrysler idled
nearby. Both sped off but didn't get far. Police arrested three more

By 9:30, Juan Perez-Torres was safe, and five of his alleged
kidnappers were about to be questioned.

They told detectives a bleak border tale.

Max Portillo, 24, said he'd been having trouble with a drug smuggler
in Nogales, Mexico, known as "El Chueco" -- Twisted. El Chueco said
Perez-Torres owed him for a load of marijuana, and he wanted someone
to kidnap him.

Portillo said he recruited the others at bars. Another suspect, Abel
Mosqueda, said he met Portillo at El Gran Mercado. Mosqueda told
detectives he was out of work and needed money. Among the five of
them, they had one gun: a black .45. They said they'd never kidnapped

How much of it was true? "That voice," Gina Garcia said, "I'm sure
he's done this before from the way he conducted the

But detectives hadn't time for the case's murky motives. They had the
kidnappers' confessions and other evidence. Prosecutors had been
getting plea-bargains of 12 years in prison for less. In a few months,
they'd have trouble remembering the case.

Detectives now check victims for warrants and have dogs sniff ransom
money for drugs, under the theory that today's victims are tomorrow's
suspects. They've seized property valued at close to $1 million.

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.

"The way I understand it, the vice president of the Bank of Mexico has
to go to work with armed escorts," Sgt. Roberts said. "The vice
president of Wells Fargo in Phoenix does not. We're trying to prevent
that from happening. If the United States as a whole doesn't do
something about this, it's possible it could go that way."

About 4 a.m. Saturday, the family of Juan Francisco Perez-Torres
huddled in the police lobby, waiting to drive him home. He denied
smuggling drugs. Fixing and selling used cars was how he made his
money, he said. No detective believed him.

Six hours later, Garcia finally went home. She hadn't slept in more
than a day. Nonetheless, she had passed up a chance to move up to sergeant.

"It's good to save people, and it's good to put people away," she

The job was in Salgado's blood as well, and he couldn't quit

"The thing about kidnapping is," he said, "it's the only crime that's
occurring as it's being investigated."

This one was now done.