By Jacques Billeaud
PHOENIX — A 13-year-old girl was grabbed off the street and thrown into an SUV by Mexican kidnappers who mistakenly believed she was the niece of a drug dealer who helped steal 55 pounds of marijuana.
The girl pleaded with her kidnappers that they had abducted the wrong person, but they hit her over the head, bound her with duct tape and drove away as relatives watch helplessly.
In the wave of abductions that have gripped the Phoenix area, this case illustrates one of the greatest fears of police: the possibility that kidnappings might expand beyond the underworld of drug and human trafficking to target law-abiding people.
"We get enough problems with just bad-guy-on-bad-guy" abductions, Police Chief Jack Harris said. "If you expand it to where they are going after these regular citizens, we just don't have that kind of personnel to be able to invest in those kinds of cases at that level."
With 368 reported kidnappings in 2008, Phoenix has swiftly become the nation's kidnapping capital. Abductions have become such a persistent problem that police created a special squad of anti-kidnapping officers.
Authorities hope to avoid the mistakes of Mexican police, who ignored kidnappings involving smugglers - a decision that may have encouraged gangs to start snatching ordinary people displaying signs of even modest wealth.
The Mexican government usually disregards the problem "unless it is a high-profile case - a very rich person or a famous person who was kidnapped," said Jose Luis Velasco Cruz, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and an expert in drug crimes.
Over the last several years, many kidnappings in Phoenix have involved drug traffickers abducting rivals, associates or their relatives. The abductions offer a way to collect unpaid debts, steal money from fellow traffickers or retaliate for earlier abductions.
Immigrant smugglers have also been known to do kidnappings, sometimes holding customers hostage to extort money from their families.
The kidnappers typically seek ransoms ranging from $30,000 to $1 million and sometimes demand drugs, too.
Two victims were killed last year. Others have been tortured by having their legs burned with clothing irons, their arms tied to the ceiling or their fingers broken with bricks. Some families have heard victims scream in pain during ransom calls.
In May 2008, kidnappers shot an immigrant smuggler in the head, brought his corpse to an alley and set it on fire in a garbage bin. The victim's girlfriend then got a call telling her to watch the news.
When kidnappings spiked, Phoenix investigators were so overwhelmed at first that they did not spend a lot of time asking in-depth questions to understand the pattern that was emerging.
"We couldn't, because it was common to have a kidnapping, be halfway into it and have another kidnapping come into the door," said Lt. Lauri Brugett, who oversees the special kidnapping squad created last summer.
When a kidnapping victim is located, it takes as many as 60 officers to rescue that person, including a SWAT team.
When innocent people are targeted by kidnappers or home invaders in Phoenix, it's usually because an attacker got his orders wrong.
In the case of the 13-year-old girl abducted in March 2008, drug traffickers wearing police-like gun belts demanded the whereabouts of a suspected drug dealer who lived in a house near where she was playing. She did not know him, but they took her anyway.
Her brother and stepbrother, ages 16 and 17, tried to stop the attackers, but backed off when the men pointed guns at them. The siblings watched as their sister was forced into the SUV and driven away.
She was released hours later in a Phoenix suburb after her abductors realized they had indeed kidnapped the wrong girl.
But investigators say law-abiding people in Phoenix have little to fear. There are no signs that traffickers intend to kidnap innocents, and, police said, trafficking bosses do not want the level of scrutiny that such abductions would bring.
Still, police worry.
"You can't be naive," Brugett said. "You really have to look at the worst-case scenario and try to figure out how effectively you can accomplish things - and then your goals for doing that. And one of those goals is that it doesn't get so easy for them that they do start targeting real victims, true victims."
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, the top prosecutor for Phoenix, was so alarmed by the abductions that his office set up a three-person team of prosecutors specializing in kidnapping cases.
"If these criminals are willing to brutalize other human beings in that fashion, in one way, I don't see any reason why they would necessarily hold back from doing the same crime on innocent citizens if they conclude that it's in their interest to do so," Thomas said.
Since June, police have made 300 arrests on charges of kidnapping and home invasion, and they have dismantled 35 abduction teams. Authorities report that fewer family members of smugglers are being targeted.
Most kidnappers, police said, are from the violent northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, a major source for drugs being funneled through Arizona.
In their effort to crack down, police pursue anyone who played a part in an abduction, however small. For instance, authorities arrested a man who got paid $600 to loan his car to a kidnapper.
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Authorities also check to see if victims have outstanding arrest warrants. If any warrants are found, victims are booked immediately after they are rescued, because police say today's victim might be tomorrow's suspect.