Border Epidemic

     Inside an Arizona tire shop, Phoenix cops, the robbery unit and others walked around, jotting down what they saw; Body armor, radios, shotgun shells, every type of shell in fact: 9mm, .45's, 30-06, 7.62's and banana clips.

     The primitive battering ram caught everyone's attention, constructed of little more than a fence post packed with concrete; such a tool is likely used in home invasion robberies or kidnappings.

     The tire shop owner, Manuel Torres, was picked up along with six other people that day, Mexican nationals, most in the country illegally and most hailing from Tijuana on the West Coast and the Mexican northwestern states of Sonora and Sinaloa: places embroiled in a cartel war that's killed more than 7,000 people over the past two years.

     Cops entered Torres' apartment, finding night vision, frag grenades, tac lights, bags of ammunition, rifle scopes, video equipment and cameras hooked up to a live feed monitoring the front and back of his home.

     "He was making money from every type of border crime," says Phoenix Robbery Unit Lt. Lauri Burgett.

     Those crimes included housing smuggled illegal migrants in the tire shop, home invasions and ripping off drug traffickers.

The Mexican drug war

     The Sinaloans, the powerful cartel that fuels much of the United States' drug habits, have been embroiled in a drug war against smaller, rival cartels that's threatened to destabilize Mexico.

     Headed by Joaquín "Shorty" Guzmán, the Sinaloans waged war on at least three different fronts over the past year, from Ciudad Juárez (across from El Paso), to Nogales (two hours south of Phoenix), to the Sinaloan capital city of Culiacán on the steamy Pacific coast.

     Hundreds of police officers have been murdered, many involved in the drug trade, but also those who've battled against it. Mexican Army soldiers have been decapitated, the highest echelons of Mexico City's law enforcement compromised with suitcase payments of nearly a half million dollars a month. The Sinaloans, a syndicate of three separate drug cartels, have established themselves as the largest cocaine broker and producer of methamphetamine and marijuana in the Western Hemisphere. The cartel and its rivals have decimated border cities from the Pacific to the Mexican Gulf. Entire towns in the mountains of Sinaloa have cleared out, fleeing the violence like war refugees. Narcos with M-79 grenade launchers and 50-caliber rifles engage in the streets and entire border economies, which are heavily reliant on tourism, have been decimated as the violence spreads.

     The border has always been a violent, collisional line reliant on illicit trade and murder. Perhaps optimistically, some say Mexican president Felipe Calderón has pushed the narco-traffickers so hard that they've turned on each other like starved rats. Others say this drug war is a re-accommodation of power, one that takes place about every decade and on which the government's efforts have had little effect. The United States points to narcotic street prices, saying they have gone up over the past year, as an indication that narco-traffickers are suffering from a supply problem.

     The Phoenix robbery unit detectives only look at a reporter quizzically when the question is raised. A narcotics detective in San Diego simply laughs. The men and women encountering drugs and border crime day to day don't agree that narco-traffickers' supplies are limited.

The corridor of trafficking

     Phoenix, a massive city the size of Connecticut and inhabited by 1.5 million people, sits about 100 miles north of the Mexican border. The capital of Arizona has long acted as a hub for drug trafficking and migrant smuggling into the United States. This state acts as the corridor for the majority of both, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

     In the past two years, Phoenix has gained another title: the city now leads the nation in kidnappings and home invasions.

     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.

     "The fourth day, somebody turned the radio way up, really loud," he says. "They told me, ‘We're going to leave for an hour and when we get back, if you're still here, we're going to kill you.' "

     Still tied to the chair, Andrade wavered between painful reality and unconsciousness. A shuffle of boots, then voices, "He's here! He's here!"

     The police had come.

     "The officer just stared at me," he said. "I didn't know what I looked like."

     Every time the kidnappers called Ocegueda demanding money, they'd make Andrade scream. They stabbed his hands, used a blowtorch and cigarettes to burn him on his back and scissors to try and cut off his fingers and ears. Ocegueda's father wired $5,000 from Mexico; it wasn't enough.

     The kidnappers cut him open and forced a thick rod into him, rupturing his colon.

     On the fourth day, Ocegueda and police had reached a deal with the kidnappers: $10,000 cash and the title to the Ford Expedition they had stolen when they kidnapped Andrade. Police went to the drop and caught some of the kidnappers there.

     After the arrests, the nightmare followed Ocegueda and Andrade to Mexico, where they moved. The lead suspect's mother was recorded on a wiretap telling her son not to plead out; that the couple was going to die.

     "He never believed we were going to testify," Ocegueda says.

Who's next?

     "We can't turn a blind eye to these [incidents]," Richard says. "It's like a skin cancer; how long before these kidnappers begin to hit legitimate businessmen?"

     It's not a point of view that border officials like to subscribe to. Last month, the mayor of Nogales, Arizona, told a newspaper that the violence is only occurring between drug cartels and not involving "ordinary people."

     Most Mexican politicians, when pressed, will express the same view, arguing that normal people are not the target.

     Maybe.

     Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, could be an example of what happens when the situation is allowed to spawn.

     The hometown of the Arellano Felix cartel has fallen into chaos; kidnappings of low-level business owners, doctors, lawyers and U.S. citizens have increased to alarming rates. Twenty-six people from San Diego were kidnapped in Mexico and held for ransom last year. Which were legitimate businessmen and which weren't, nobody will say.

     To Richard, it doesn't matter: "You have people using human beings as commodities. We can't allow that to flourish here."

     Michel Marizco is an organized crime reporter in Arizona and northern Mexico. He runs the news and intelligence Web site, BorderReporter.com, in Tucson. He can be reached at marizco@borderreporter.com.

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