Inside the brutal world of America's kidnapping capital

The terrain hardly was a deterrent. More migrants funneled into the country through Arizona because of the lax enforcement and because the rugged landscape offered great cover for smuggling caravans. Also, the feds underestimated the determination of migrants in life-and-death struggles to better themselves and their families.

Though many died in the brutal Sonoran heat or from ill treatment by smugglers, throngs of immigrants made it to Phoenix, which became the hub not only for migrants who wanted to stay in Arizona or go to the populous Los Angeles area, but also for those who planned to fan out all over the country.

Backing up to 1994, a year after Texas ramped up its border security, agents in Nogales arrested 137,407 people trying to sneak into Arizona—66 percent more than the previous year.

A kidnapping victim rescued by  the Phoenix Police Department's Home Invasion and Kidnapping Enforcement unit
Phoenix Police Department/Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement
A kidnapping victim rescued by the Phoenix Police Department's Home Invasion and Kidnapping Enforcement unit
A Phoenix drop house where coyotes held more than two dozen illegal  immigrants hostage. Kidnappers force their victims to strip to make it  hard for them to escape.
Phoenix Police Department/Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement
A Phoenix drop house where coyotes held more than two dozen illegal immigrants hostage. Kidnappers force their victims to strip to make it hard for them to escape.


The increased number of immigrants coming into the state naturally created a burgeoning market for coyotes. As time passed, smuggling operations became more sophisticated and prices for passage went up.

Cartels that already were moving drugs and weapons across the border expanded their trade to include humans.

They charged human smugglers "taxes" to use their routes across the border. Or they contracted with human-smuggling rings to move loads of pollos collected from border towns.

And the style of violence that is common in parts of Mexico—where people are gruesomely murdered in broad daylight in public squares—started to seep across the border into Arizona.

Governor Jan Brewer, among other Arizona politicians, would like the nation to believe that average illegal immigrants are the driving force behind rampant violent crimes in Arizona.

During a televised gubernatorial debate, Brewer said, "The majority of the people that are coming to Arizona and trespassing are . . . drug mules."

She and others who parrot that myth have no statistics, reports or evidence, but they perpetuate the notion that all illegal immigrants have direct links to drug cartels or choose to come here to wallow in lives of crime and violence.

Yet Arizona isn't under attack from average illegal immigrants, who come here to find employment that is virtually nonexistent in Mexico and most of Central America. In fact, it is the immigrants who are under attack—from Mexican cartels, from coyotes, from Arizona and from the federal government.

Russell Pearce, the state senator who authored Senate Bill 1070, has proclaimed that neighborhoods in the state will be safer when all undocumented immigrants are labeled by statute as criminals. His bill sought to help ensure that, but the heart of 1070 was stymied by U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton in a ruling that is certain to be appealed.

Besides, law-enforcement authorities, including Phoenix police Chief Jack Harris, think SB 1070 will make it even harder for cops to do their jobs. Already, the victims of smugglers are reluctant to report crimes to police. If all of 1070 goes into effect, even more violent crime will operate under the radar of law enforcement.

Pearce argues that smuggling operations will be afraid to come into Phoenix with SB 1070, but what do they have to fear when they have been able to elude police so effectively? The Pearce-inspired statute, many cops say, will only make departments, particularly Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's, go after law-abiding illegal aliens (housekeepers, gardeners, tree-trimmers, restaurant workers) all the more, leaving violent smugglers to carry on as usual.

Despite what many law-enforcement professionals profess, Pearce says if Arizona makes itself as inhospitable to immigrants as possible, all but an insane few will stop coming to the United States illegally.

Pearce insists that anybody who wants to come here must do so through legal channels.

What he and other zealots ignore is that it's virtually impossible for Mexicans and Central Americans to emigrate here legally.

U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes U.S. permanent-residency requests, is just now working on applications filed in 1994 by Mexican nationals seeking visas or green cards. These people who followed the rules already have waited 16 years.

This is too long for immigrants to endure, according to Phoenix immigration attorney Jared Leung, when they need employment to feed their families or are desperate to reunite with loved ones already here.

"Everyone is for family unity, whether you are pro-immigration or anti-immigration. It is our nature to want to be with our families," says Leung. "But for some people, getting family unity [means] almost a 20-year wait. . . . Whether it's parents wanting to be with children who were born here, or parents bringing in children they left behind, no law is going to be strong enough to keep them apart."

Federal law allows 26,260 people from Mexico to receive visas each year. There are roughly 1.1 million Mexicans on a waiting list.

An application process to become a legal U.S. resident that can take two decades to get processed, Leung argues, isn't a practical alternative to hiring a coyote. He says the federal government has created no incentive for immigrants to follow the rules.

Feeble attempts at reform have gone nowhere, or they have been met with fierce resistance. Consider the furor caused recently when a Republican U.S. senator released a White House internal memo outlining some administrative actions available to the president to address immigration issues now, instead of waiting for comprehensive reform to make it through Congress.

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