Border violence heading to Houston?

June 22, 2009 12:17:18 PM PDT
With the growing violence along the border and in parts of Arizona, the secretary of Homeland Security says it's only a matter of time before we start seeing an increase in violence in our area. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

It's happening far from the border, but it is border crime. The victims are mostly from Mexico. Many here illegally, most linked to crime sometime in their past. But with kidnappings coming on average more than once a day, Phoenix is fighting back, hoping to stop the spree before it spreads to other cities.

We went to Phoenix to cover this border crime. And with kidnappings happening more than once per day, Phoenix is fighting back.

In a west Phoenix neighborhood, the kind where kids constantly play out front, Maria Fatigone had no idea what her own neighbors were doing.

"We would see women with baby carriers," she said.

Whatever image her neighbors tried to project, it was a mirage, as Maria found out when police pulled up.

"There was blood on the walls. There was blood on the floor. There was blood on the carpet," said Maria. "It's like death in there."

Inside her neighbor's house, a kidnapping victim, in this case a human smuggler , had been tied up, tortured, burned, sodomized and cut by a rival coyote.

The victim's family found out he was being held in excruciating calls begging them to deliver $55,000 ransom.

It's a horrific case, but as in most of these cases, the victim was connected to the smuggling trade. The victim in a different case was not at all. In March of last year, a 13-year-old girl was playing basketball in front of a home when two cars pulled up. Both of them had police lights, the victim said, and the 13-year-old was ordered into the car at gunpoint. She was bound and kicked and beaten. Frighteningly, it turned out the kidnappers had the wrong girl.

Her captors were later caught, but the epidemic continues. Police are finding on average, more than one kidnapping victim a day, blindfolded, shot, bound and sexually assaulted.

The epidemic is overwhelming to a first in the nation special Phoenix Police Department kidnapping squad.

"That's a serious issue and we're dealing with it," said Sgt. Tommy Thompson with the Phoenix Police Department.

Victims there are almost always drug or human smugglers. They've become so common in the country's fifth largest city that many people here are there immune to the stories.

"I am not nervous," said resident Chauncey Howard.

"Do you know anyone who is?" we asked.

"No," answered Howard.

There is at this point, little evidence kidnappers will target truly innocent victims. But police know when this first emerged 15 years ago in Mexico, criminals first targeted other criminals, but then branched out.

"Once those groups organized themselves and became proficient as kidnappers, they began to take legitimate victims," said Sgt. Thompson.

That is why Phoenix police work these cases so hard. After working 80 active kidnapping cases herself in just the last year, the squad's Lt. Lauri Burgett is not certain they're winning quite yet.

"Probably not. I don't know if we're winning," she said. "But we're uncovering a lot."

Their intelligence leads them to believe this happens far more often than they know about. Kidnapping is one of the most underreported crimes, not just in Phoenix, but all over the country.

In Phoenix, every police officer we spoke with assured us they are not alone.

"Houston does have a problem," said Maricopa County, Arizona Mayor Joe Arpaio. "You may not know about it."

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