Crime: Mexico's Drug Violence Crosses the Border

As Manuel exited the Radio Shack in Phoenix with his family one afternoon last month, a group of Hispanic men standing in the parking lot watched him closely. "Do it now, do it now," one said to another in Spanish, according to a witness. One of the men approached Manuel, pointed a revolver at his head and tried to force him into a Ford Expedition parked close by. "Please, I'll get into the car, just don't touch me," Manuel pleaded as he entered the vehicle, his wife told police. Nearby, she said, another man in a Chrysler sedan aimed a rifle or shotgun out the driver's side window. At some point, shots were fired, said witnesses, although apparently no one was hit. Then the vehicles tore off with a screech of tires.

Later that evening, the phone rang. When Manuel's wife picked up, a male voice said in Spanish, "Don't call the police," and then played a recording of Manuel saying, "Tell the kids I'm OK." The man said he'd call again, then hung up. Despite the warning, Manuel's wife contacted the cops. In subsequent calls, the kidnappers told her Manuel owed money for drugs, and they demanded $1 million and his Cadillac Escalade as ransom.

When two men later retrieved the Escalade and drove off, the cops chased them and forced them off the road. Both men, illegal immigrants from Mexico, said they'd been paid by a man (who authorities believe has high-level drug connections) to drive the vehicle to Tucson. So far, police say, Manuel hasn't reappeared, and his family has been reluctant to cooperate further with law enforcement. "He's a drug dealer, and he lost a load," says Lt. Lauri Burgett of the Phoenix Police Department's recently created kidnapping squad. "He was probably brought to Mexico to answer for that."

Surprising as it may seem, Phoenix has become America's kidnapping capital. Last year 368 abductions were reported, compared with 117 in 2000. Police say the real number is likely much higher, since many go unreported. Though in the past most of the nabbings stemmed from domestic-violence incidents, now the majority are linked to drug-trafficking and human-smuggling operations that pervade the Arizona corridor. It's still unclear to what extent the snatchings are being directly ordered by Mexican cartels, but authorities say they're undoubtedly a byproduct of the drug-fueled mayhem south of the border. "The tactics are moving north," says assistant police chief Andy Anderson. "We don't have the violence they have in Mexico yet—the killing of police officers and the beheadings—but in terms of kidnappings and home invasions, it has come."

That raises an unnerving prospect: that the turmoil in Mexico—where drug violence claimed more than 6,000 lives last year—is finally seeping across the border. According to a December report by the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center, Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have established a presence in 230 U.S. cities, including such remote places as Anchorage, Alaska, and Sheboygan, Wis. The issue is preoccupying American officials. "This is getting the highest level of attention," including the president's, says Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She tells NEWSWEEK that the administration is dispatching additional Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel to the border, and it's reviewing requests from the governors of Arizona and Texas for help from National Guard troops. Earlier this month, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Mexico to discuss assistance and to share potentially relevant lessons that the United States has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, says a senior Pentagon official familiar with details of the trip who wasn't authorized to speak on the record.

All the attention has stoked public debate on a particularly fraught question—whether Mexico is a failing state. A U.S. Joint Forces Command study released last November floated that scenario, grouping the country with Pakistan as a potential candidate for "sudden and rapid collapse." Such a comparison is excessive, says Eric Olson of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute in Washington, D.C., though the Mexican government confronts "real problems of sovereignty in certain areas" of the country. Administration officials are striving to tone down the rhetoric and focus on ways to help. Among the priorities, says Olson: to cut American demand for drugs, to provide additional training and equipment to law-enforcement and military personnel in Mexico, and to clamp down on drug cash—an estimated $23 billion per year—and assault weapons flowing into the country from the United States.

As the violence continues to spiral in Mexico, reports of cartel-related activity are on the rise in American cities far removed from the border. Last August the bodies of five Mexican men were discovered bound, gagged and electrocuted in Birmingham, Ala., in what was believed to be a hit ordered by Mexican narcotraffickers. A few months later, 33 people with cartel ties were indicted in Greeneville, Tenn., for distributing 24,000 pounds of marijuana. In neighboring North Carolina, "there are cartel cells … that are a direct extension from Mexico," says John Emerson, the Drug Enforcement Administration's special agent in charge in the state.

Law enforcement in Atlanta, where a maze of interstates provides distribution routes throughout the Southeast, has dubbed the city "the new Southwest border." "All those trends are coming here," says Fred Stephens of the Georgia Bureau of Investigations. "We are seeing alarming patterns, the same violence." He ticks off a spate of cartel-linked crimes in the state—assaults, abductions, executions. Last May authorities in Gwinnett County found a kidnap victim, along with 11 kilos of cocaine and $7.65 million in shrink-wrapped bundles, in a house rented by an alleged Gulf cartel cell leader. A few months later, a suspected drug dealer in Lawrenceville was abducted by six men, dressed commando-style in black, and held for a $2 million ransom (he escaped).

Nothing rivals the rash of kidnappings in Phoenix, however. As border enforcement has tightened the screws on the California and Texas crossings, Arizona has become a prime gateway for illicit trafficking—in both directions. "The drugs and people come north, the guns go south," says Elizabeth Kempshall, the DEA's special agent in charge of the Phoenix division. Arizona is mostly dominated by the Sinaloa cartel, which authorities say is trying to assert greater control over the U.S. drug trade. Yet analysts believe the organization has fractured—most notably last summer, when the Beltrán Leyva brothers reportedly split from leader Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán.

That internecine conflict, along with cartel encroachment north of the border, has created something of a free-for-all in Phoenix's criminal underworld. Among the groups that have stepped into the breach: roving Mexican gangsters called bajadores, or "takedown" crews, who are responsible for many of the city's kidnappings. Often operating in packs of five, they typically cross the border to commit crimes, then retreat south, say police. Some work as enforcers for the cartels, collecting payment from dealers who have stiffed the capos or lost their loads. Others function as freelancers, stealing shipments of drugs or illegal immigrants from traffickers. "We've seen an uptick in the bajadores since last summer," says Al Richard, a Phoenix police detective. "We are seeing a lot more professionals coming up here now."

Bajadores are renowned for their ruthlessness. Kidnap victims have been found bound and gagged, their fingers smashed and their foreheads spattered with blood from pistol-whippings. When the crews abduct illegal immigrants—hoping to extort more money from relatives—"they will sometimes kill someone off immediately to scare the others," says Richard. "There was a case last year where they duct-taped the mouth and nose of one individual and had the others watch while he asphyxiated and defecated on himself." Some bajadores have branched out to home invasions. In one incident last June, a gang broke into a home, outfitted in Phoenix police gear and Kevlar vests—a hallmark of criminal enterprises across the border.

To combat the problem, police in Phoenix created the kidnapping squad—known officially as Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement—last September. Led by Lieutenant Burgett, the team of 10 lead investigators has already busted 31 crime cells and made more than 220 arrests. But "it never stops," she says. "It's like a Texas ant hill." One of the squad's main objectives: to keep the abductions confined to the criminal world. "Most of the time, our victims are as bad as our suspects," says Sgt. Phil Roberts. "We give them five to 10 minutes to hug their wife, and then they are off to jail themselves." If average citizens begin to get ensnared, the result could be widespread panic. "We don't want what happens in Mexico to happen here, where they are kidnapping bank presidents," he says. "We don't want the president of Wells Fargo to need a bodyguard."

Last Tuesday afternoon, the squad was working a case involving a suspected marijuana middleman. As police later learned, a few days earlier, he'd allegedly brokered a deal between a group of sellers and two buyers for 150 pounds of pot. But when the parties gathered at a suburban house, the two buyers held up the others and made off with $40,000 worth of dope and cash. The man tried to escape, but a woman at the house pulled a gun on him. "You're not leaving," she said, according to the middleman's subsequent account to police. "You set up this deal." The stolen goods were now his debt. Eventually released, he scrambled to cobble together $40,000 worth of possessions—three vehicles, 10 pounds of pot, some cash—while a man who called himself "Chuco" rang him every hour. But it wasn't enough. On Tuesday morning, Chuco arrived at the man's house. "I've got to go," the man told his girlfriend, according to her statements to police. "If I don't pay, they're going to hurt me." His abductors, he said, worked for El Chapo (an unconfirmed allegation).

Later that day, the man's girlfriend arrived at the police station. Sleepless and frantic, she fielded repeated calls from her boyfriend, who pleaded for her to raise additional cash. The cops urged her to remain calm. "I know you are stressed, but you need to keep talking," said one of the detectives. "You are the only one who can do the negotiating." She had already called some family members and asked them to draw money from an equity line. But it wasn't arriving quickly enough. "I don't have it yet, baby," she told her boyfriend on a subsequent call, as he grew more distressed. "I'm doing everything I can."

Unbeknownst to the woman, the kidnapping squad had received information on her boyfriend's possible location. As cops approached the suspected house a little after midnight, an SUV suddenly sped away. Police pursued it and pulled it over. "Tell us where he is!" a detective told the passengers. Just then, a Chevy Impala took off from the house. Another chase ensued, and eventually the driver was forced to stop. Inside were four passengers, with the middleman in the rear, flanked by two men armed with weapons. Back at the station, detectives questioned the parties; as of late last week, charges were likely against four abductors, but not the victim, due to a lack of evidence in the suspected marijuana deal. But now he's on the cops' radar, says Burgett. "We do proactive follow-up on victims as well."

Though much of Phoenix's kidnapping epidemic stems from alleged drug deals gone awry, plenty are linked to the human-smuggling trade. That work used to be dominated by small "mom and pop" outfits, but in time, the cartels have muscled in on it. Any group that wants to use their trafficking routes has to pay up—about $2,000 per week for Mexicans and $10,000 per week for "exotics," like Chinese and Middle Easterners, says Richard, the Phoenix detective. That added business cost has encouraged some smugglers to try to extort more money from their human loads—known as pollos, or "chickens"—once they've crossed the border. More and more, pollos may change hands several times among dueños, or "owners"—a new, more violent breed of smugglers. The drop houses used to stash immigrants are also becoming more barbaric.

One recent night, the Human Smuggling Unit of the Maricopa County sheriff's office received a tip on a drop house in a middle-class neighborhood in Phoenix. Relatives of an immigrant being held there had received an extortion call demanding $3,500. Joined by a SWAT team, the unit made its move, breaching windows and doors, which were boarded up (a typical precaution taken by smugglers). A half dozen men tried to escape but were grabbed, says Lt. Joe Sousa, the unit commander. Inside were several dozen illegal immigrants, all shoeless and famished. Authorities confiscated two pistols, a sawed-off shotgun and a Taser-like device—"used against people when they're put on the phone, begging their relatives for cash," says Sousa. It was a good bust, he says, but "within a week or two, that same organization will be back up and running." Sousa moved to Phoenix because he thought it was a nice place to raise a family. But the violence is out of control, he says. "Soon as I retire, I'm out of here."

Many area residents who have had encounters with the smuggling world share the sentiment. At a takedown of a suspected drop house a few days earlier in nearby Avondale, a neighbor became inconsolable describing the terror he experienced living next door to what locals fear is a home to ruthless criminals. "It's been hell," said the man, who refused to be named because he was scared. "I have five kids. I've been sleeping with two machine guns under my bed for two years." He's planning to foreclose on his property and flee with his family as soon as possible. Despite the bust, the smugglers "will be back," he said. "Right now, they are headed to the border, they'll chill out for a month, and they'll be back." As overwrought as he may have been, he was probably right.