Border Epidemic

As narco-on-narco crimes escalate, police ask: Who's next?

     In 2008, Phoenix had 370 reported home invasions and another 366 kidnappings, says Burgett. In December alone, the robbery unit handled more than a case a day.

     On a cold January night, three people came in to report kidnappings. In one case, a woman said she'd been kidnapped for a $100,000 ransom, money her family didn't have. The kidnappers settled for $3,000 and let her go. An hour later, in a second case, a woman reported she got a call from kidnappers demanding $200,000 for her boyfriend. She stared at the ground in front of her, trying to avoid the most important question, the one that tells police everything they need to know: What does your boyfriend do?

     They were both drug traffickers.

     A third case involved a group of home invaders who'd been eyeing the home of a former U.S. Army sniper who kept three strong boxes packed with weapons and more than $100,000 in cash.

     "It consumes you," says Burgett, who estimates she spends more than half a million dollars a year in overtime expenses, each case absorbing at least 60 officers from the initial call to the arrests.

Narco-on-narco crime

     The robbery unit knows what it's dealing with, mostly narco-on-narco crimes: one band of criminals ripping off a second one, turning police into what Burgett calls a "retriever of services."

     The situation is deteriorating into chaos, with home invaders hitting the wrong house at least three times last year. The small bands are nearly impossible to infiltrate says Al Richard, a robbery and violent crimes detective with Phoenix Police for five years. "They're mostly loosely knit freelancers, they're recruiting in bars, swap meets, even day labor sites," Richard says.

     The entrepreneurs hit drop houses where illegal migrants are stashed, stealing loads of people worth $2,500 a head. They hit drug traffickers whose networks pull in an average of $7 billion a year in marijuana alone.

     January 2008: Four men snatch a woman as she leaves a Phoenix LensCrafters store. Her kidnappers wanted $90,000. Her husband was a marijuana trafficker.

     June 2008: A SWAT unit is nearby when they hear someone unload more than 100 rounds of automatic weapon fire. One man was killed in the house.

     Summer 2007: For more than a year, Luis Camacho Pasos, a Sinaloan, would infiltrate rival smuggler gangs in Phoenix, pretending to be an illegal migrant in need of a smuggler. Once the smugglers moved him into Phoenix, he would tell the smugglers that they needed to call his wife to get the rest of the fee. They'd place the call and that's when his own gang would get the drop on them. His scam worked until he accidentally shot himself in the leg, sending the migrants scattering and resulting in his arrest.

     Pasos is now serving a 15-year sentence.

A Sinaloan kidnapping

     Richard points to another case: kidnap victim Jaime Andrade and his girlfriend Araceli Ocegueda.

     In April 2006, the 25-year-old woman was home mopping the kitchen floor when she felt a gun pressed to her head. The nightmare began. Her boyfriend, Andrade, would never be the same. He was a mechanic but moonlighted as a sort of illegal migrant broker, earning $100 a person for finding them a place to stay and a job.

     The slender woman was lowered to the ground; all she could see was the kidnapper's orange crocodile-skin boots, and she could hear her boyfriend shouting in the next room, "It's you again!"

     "I told you not to look at me," the Sinaloan kidnapper yelled.

     Ocegueda rose to her feet and watched as the man clubbed Andrade in the head.

     They left with his limp body and the calls started the next day; the kidnappers wanted $50,000.

     Andrade remembers being placed in a closet and tied to a chair. Sometimes a man would come in and hit him with a baseball bat. When the man would come in with the phone, it would be worse. Andrade breaks down, his voice cracking, trying to draw a breath into his thin, fragile body. Initial police reports had his weight at 200 pounds. He doesn't know how much he's lost since.

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