Held Captive

Coyotes who smuggle immigrants torture and extort their victims, helped by out government's failure to enact immigration reform.

When investigators encounter a case like this one, in which the victim has no discernible connection to smuggling, they're particularly concerned.

"A young Latino is kidnapped, and at first, you think, there must be some connection, but there isn't," says Police Lieutenant Lauri Burgett, adding that the victim was a U.S. citizen. "When I get cases like these, man, I think there are so many [kidnapping cases that] what's happening in Mexico is starting to happen here."


Federal immigration policies in the mid-1990s forced the stream of immigrants heading north into the United States to shift their routes to the Arizona desert when the feds fortified the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso with Operation Hold the Line, and in San Diego with Operation Gatekeeper.

A kidnapping victim rescued by the Phoenix Police Department’s Home Invasion and Kidnapping Enforcement unit (HIKE).
Photos by Phoenix Police Department/HIKE
A kidnapping victim rescued by the Phoenix Police Department’s Home Invasion and Kidnapping Enforcement unit (HIKE).
A 32-year-old Latino man, taken hostage by two armed men, narrowly  escaped getting buried alive in this makeshift grave his kidnappers dug  inside a Phoenix home.
Photos by Phoenix Police Department/HIKE
A 32-year-old Latino man, taken hostage by two armed men, narrowly escaped getting buried alive in this makeshift grave his kidnappers dug inside a Phoenix home.

The change intensified border security in California. By 1997, the feds had doubled the number of border agents in San Diego, doubled California's border-security budget, and increased the number of underground sensors to detect border crossers.

In Texas, fallen fences along the border were rebuilt, agents were stationed not just at established checkpoints but at popular spots for illegal crossing, and more overtime was authorized. Arrests at the Texas border dropped to fewer than 9,000 in 1994, down from 23,743 in 1992. Border Patrol agents in California arrested 531,689 immigrants along the San Diego County border in 1993; by 2002, that number had dropped to about 100,000.

During the same time, the feds approved Operation Safeguard to fortify the border between Arizona and Mexico. Government reports show that Arizona received an additional 100 border agents, $1 million to defray incarceration costs, and some equipment — including a couple of helicopters fitted with night-vision scopes and surveillance cameras. The investment in Arizona was much smaller than in Texas and California — and the results were different, too.

The federal plan was "intentionally driving people to Arizona and hoped that they would be deterred by the terrain," wrote Jeffrey Kaye, author of Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration.

Terrain was hardly a deterrent. More migrants came through Arizona because of the lax enforcement, and because the rugged landscape offered great cover for smuggling. Also, the feds underestimated the determination of migrants in life-and-death struggles to better themselves and their families.Gov. Jan Brewer and other Arizona politicians would like the nation to believe that average illegal immigrants are the driving force behind rampant violent crimes. "The majority of the people who are coming to Arizona and trespassing are ... drug mules," Brewer has said.

She and others have no statistics, reports, or evidence, but perpetuate the notion that most illegal immigrants have direct links to drug cartels, work as drug mules, or choose to come here to wallow in lives of crime and violence.

Yet Arizona is not under attack from average illegal immigrants, who come to find employment that is almost nonexistent in Mexico and most of Central America. In fact, it is the immigrants who are under attack — from Mexican cartels, from coyotes, from Arizona, and from the U.S. federal government.

Russell Pearce, the state senator who wrote Arizona Senate Bill 1070, has proclaimed that neighborhoods will be safer when all undocumented immigrants are labeled by statute as criminals. His bill sought to help ensure that, but the heart of 1070 was stymied by U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton in a ruling that is certain to be appealed.

Law enforcement authorities, including Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, think 1070 will make it even harder for cops to do their jobs. Already, the victims of smugglers are reluctant to report crimes to police. If all of 1070 goes into effect, even more violent crime will occur under the radar of law enforcement.

Pearce argues that smuggling operations will be afraid to enter the city if 1070 is enforced. But many cops say violent smugglers will be able to carry on as usual, because it will force police departments to use resources going after law-abiding illegal aliens: maids, gardeners, tree-trimmers, and restaurant workers. Pearce insists that if Arizona makes itself as inhospitable to immigrants as possible, all but an insane few will stop coming to the United States illegally. What he and his allies ignore is that it's all but impossible for Mexicans and Central Americans to emigrate here legally.

U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes permanent-residency applications, is only now working on applications filed in 1994 by Mexican nationals seeking visas or green cards. These people, who followed the rules, have already waited 16 years. Federal law allows 26,260 people from Mexico to receive visas each year. There are more than 1.1 million Mexicans on a waiting list.

That is too long for immigrants to endure when they need work to feed their families and are desperate to unite with loved ones in the United States, Phoenix immigration attorney Jared Leung says. "Whether it's parents wanting to be with children who were born here or parents bringing in children they left behind, no law is going to be strong enough to keep them apart," he says.

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