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.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are smuggled through Arizona from Mexico, most heading on to join relatives living and working in the shadows in towns and cities across the United States.
The desert state also straddles a furiously trafficked corridor for drugs, especially marijuana, more than 400 tons of which were seized last year by the U.S. Border Patrol alone. Profits from the two crimes amount to billions of dollars.
Police say the kidnappers are most often Mexican criminals, sometimes helped by local street gangs in Phoenix. They single out cash-flush targets from among the drug traffickers and "coyotes" -- as human smugglers are known -- in the criminal community.
Cell members may trail identified targets for a couple of days, looking for the moment to pounce. Others may be asking around, looking for likely victims, often big spenders "who throw their money around" in bars and clubs, Roberts said.
Aside from the smugglers themselves, victims have included their wives, girlfriends and even children. They are often held in darkened rooms where they are routinely beaten, tortured or sexually assaulted to extort a ransom that can range from $50,000 to $1 million.
Police recordings of ransom calls reveal the kidnappers' brutality. In one 2006 call, the abductors had bound a victim with tape, placed him in a bathtub and called his ex-wife to demand money as they threatened him with a hacksaw.
"I want you to understand something. I have him in the bathtub right now and I'm about to cut his (expletive) hand off," the kidnapper says. "Which hand do you want? The left or the right?"
The surge in kidnappings has earned Phoenix the tag of U.S. "kidnap capital" among law enforcement authorities.
ICE says the spike stems from tighter enforcement on the porous Arizona-Mexico border in recent years, which has made smuggling harder and load stealing, virtual kidnapping and targeted abductions a more attractive alternative.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety, ICE and Phoenix police work closely together to combat human smuggling rings, especially those that use violence.
Phoenix police also has a dedicated kidnapping team to tackle the growing wave of abductions, and officers say they are arresting more of the perpetrators.
Investigators say the activity remains largely contained within the criminal underworld in the city as a "bad guy kidnapping bad guy" activity.
But as the round of abductions continues across Phoenix, with as many as three kidnappings on one particularly busy day, police are concerned that innocent people will get hurt.
In one recent kidnapping, a 14-year-old girl from south Phoenix was mistakenly picked up on the street by a gun-toting snatch squad looking for the daughter of a known drug dealer. The girl was subsequently released by her captors.
"She happened to be standing outside in front of the home ... they grabbed her in broad daylight ... threw her in the vehicle and took off," said Roberts.
"Here is the perfect example of a young girl who has nothing to do with this, her family has nothing to do with this, she just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Editing by Doina Chiacu