By Jacques Billeaud
PHOENIX — Posing as police officers, gunmen in bulletproof vests pulled over a motorist, took him to a Phoenix house, bound him with zip ties and held him for a $30,000 ransom in an abduction that may have been carried out by Mexican drug smugglers.
The abduction earlier this month was one of nearly 1,000 kidnappings reported in Phoenix over the past years in a surge of lawlessness so terrifying that the mayor welcomed the news this week that Washington is sending more manpower and equipment to the Mexican border, 180 miles to the south.
"It's a good first step, but we'll need to do more," said Mayor Phil Gordon, who had pleaded with Congress for help.
The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it will dispatch nearly 500 more federal agents to the border, along with X-ray machines and drug-sniffing dogs, to stop the spillover of violence into the U.S. from Mexican drug- and immigrant-smugglers.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that the move is just a first step and that National Guardsmen might also be sent, something Texas Gov. Rick Perry has requested.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid her first visit to Mexico and pledged that the U.S. will help Mexico fight its murderous drug cartels, a battle that has cost more than 7,000 lives south of the border.
The additional federal agents will be used to fight crime and illegal immigration in border communities. Some will be stationed in between border communities; some will scrutinize motorists entering Mexico, to curb the smuggling of guns. Guns brought into Mexico from the U.S. are blamed for 95 percent of the killings south of the border.
In the past, border inspectors mostly focused on traffic coming into the United States.
Authorities and residents along the more than 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border said the effort is a good first step, and a measured response, too. Some said sending troops would be an overreaction that would endanger innocents.
Some border politicians also argued that outside of the drug-trafficking hubs of Phoenix and Atlanta, the bloodshed spreading into this country from Mexico has been exaggerated.
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, like some of his counterparts along the border, said his city has seen very little spillover violence, noting that about four murders in San Diego over the past two years have been attributed to warring drug cartels.
In South Texas, Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino complained that media attention is stoking fear. "They want it to look like a battle zone," Trevino said.
Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas, whose city sits across from the once-embattled city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, was in Washington this week, trying to convince officials his city isn't a cartel hotspot. The perception has cost the city money, he said, citing the cancellation of tours for the city's monthlong George Washington celebration.
Phoenix is clearly seeing the worst of the spillover. Investigators here suspect some of the kidnappings have led to killings in which bound and bullet-riddled bodies have been dumped in the desert.
In the kidnapping of the motorist earlier this month, the victim managed to escape from the house before any ransom was paid. Investigators suspect he was mixed up in drug- or immigrant-smuggling because his captors believed he could get his hands on $30,000 in cash.
The Phoenix mayor said that while he supports the Obama administration's steps so far, the key to reducing the violence is comprehensive immigration reform, which he said would reduce immigrant smuggling.
In Santa Cruz County, Ariz., Sheriff Tony Estrada said he believes cartels are responsible for kidnappings, shootings, rapes and banditry in his county, which shares 50 miles of border with Mexico.
Some law enforcement authorities in Arizona question whether the kidnappings are being carried out by bona-fide cartel members or by subcontractors - traffickers who get their merchandise from the cartels.
David Denlinger, chief of criminal investigations for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, likened the cartels to the tire business.
"You don't have a manufacturer of a tire that's the one putting it on your car at the end," Denlinger said. "So what you see up here in the interior is not your formal cartel. That's pretty much ended once they passed it through the United States."
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But Estrada, a lawman along the border for the past 41 years, said the question of whether the violence is carried out by the cartels or affiliated traffickers is just semantics: "How can you separate one thing from the other?"