Criminals targeted in U.S. "kidnap capital"

Wed Oct 8, 2008 2:57pm EDT
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By Tim Gaynor

PHOENIX (Reuters) - The criminal underworld in the sun-baked Arizona capital of Phoenix has long enjoyed the hot money profits from illicit smuggling of drugs and people over the border from Mexico.

But now its members are living in fear as they are stalked by kidnappers after their proceeds, authorities say.

Police in the desert city say specialized kidnap rings are snatching suspected criminals and their families from their homes, running them off the roads and even grabbing them at shopping malls in a spiraling spate of abductions.

"Phoenix is ground zero for illegal narcotics smuggling and illegal human smuggling in the United States," said Phil Roberts, a Phoenix Police Department detective.

"There's a lot of illegal cash out there in the valley, and a lot of people want to get their hands on it."

Last year alone, Phoenix police reported 357 extortion-related abductions -- up by nearly half from 2005 -- targeting individuals with ties to Mexican smuggling rings.

In addition, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement police have also recorded cases of kidnappers snatching illegal immigrant day laborers off the street for ransom.

Agents have also recorded a growing number of "virtual kidnappings," in which abductors cold-call an immigrant's family falsely claiming that they are holding them hostage. The tactic is used frequently Mexico, where abduction is a lucrative and sophisticated industry.   Continued...