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Seized: Inside the Brutal World of America's Kidnapping Capital

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Investigators worry that the smugglers' level of brutality in this country will someday mirror horrific acts of violence in Mexican cities like Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, and Mexico City. Warring drug cartels in Mexico have decapitated victims and assassinated rivals, politicians, and police officers. Competitors' heads have been hung in public squares.

But the methods of the criminal syndicates operating in metro Phoenix are nearly as demented — and the brutality is effective at getting families to pay. Those who don't or can't pay may never see their relatives again. Many pollos simply disappear, and their families, fearful of la migra, never make law enforcement the wiser.

The human rights organization Coalición de Derechos Humanos reported that between October 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010, authorities recovered the bodies of 153 people in the Sonoran Desert. Though many bodies are believed to be those of border crossers who succumbed to extreme temperatures and the harsh terrain, medical examiners determined that five of the individuals died of gunshot wounds to their heads or bodies, and seven succumbed to blunt-force injuries. Sixty-seven bodies were so badly decomposed that it couldn't be determined how they died.

In 2008, seven bodies were found dumped in the desert west of Phoenix. One victim was discovered in Avondale with his hands tied behind his back and a gunshot wound to the back of his head. Between March and October 2002, police found eight bodies north of Buckeye. All of them had their hands bound behind their backs, bodies peppered with bullets.

With most of the killings unsolved, police can only surmise that the corpses were the work of smugglers.

The players in human-smuggling syndicates are predominantly Mexican nationals working both sides of the border, but investigators have discovered examples of white U.S. citizens (who, coyotes know, appear much less suspicious to police) involved in the trade.

It was mid-morning on April 1 when a state trooper pulled over Brook Ashley Sieckman, a 34-year-old, white California woman, on a traffic violation. She was driving a Chevy Suburban west on Interstate 10 through Buckeye. Because it was discovered that she also had a suspended driver's license, Arizona law requires that her vehicle be impounded for 30 days.

As the DPS officer took inventory of Sieckman's personal items in the car, he found four men and a woman hidden beneath blankets. The immigrants were turned over to ICE, and Sieckman was arrested and jailed on suspicion of human smuggling.

Authorities don't know how many smuggling organizations operate in metro Phoenix, much less how many deal simultaneously in moving people, drugs, and guns. What they do know is that smugglers have brought violent crime to area cities — some of it in broad daylight.

"Life is cheap for these people," Phoenix police Commander Brent Vermeer says of the kidnappers operating here.

In April, Roman Mendez drove to Arizona from his home in California to pay coyotes to release four of his relatives who had arrived from Mexico the previous day. The exchange was made at a Denny's restaurant near I-10 and Baseline Road in Tempe. As Mendez drove away with his family members, the coyotes who delivered the hostages called a cohort to tell him that the family had paid the entire smuggling fee within hours.

They smelled an opportunity for a bigger payout.

Still on the road minutes later, Mendez's car was overtaken in Phoenix and cut off by a car containing the same coyotes who had just let his family go. Armed men jumped out, and one of them ripped Mendez from the driver's seat. They then drove off in his vehicle with his family again in their custody. Soon, a phone call came from a man demanding even more money.

Reluctantly, Mendez alerted police. After HIKE detectives worked the case for three days, they were able to rescue the hostages and arrest the kidnappers. The hostages were questioned and turned over to ICE, and the coyotes were held for prosecution.

The lust for a bigger payout makes Valley residents who freelance for smuggling operations especially vulnerable. Competitors see these part-time coyotes as a pipeline to cash.

Jaime Andrade had a regular job as a mechanic but sometimes dabbled in human smuggling, earning $100 apiece to find recently smuggled immigrants a place to work and live. In April 2006, two men dragged him out of his Phoenix home after one of them hit him over the head with a baseball bat. The kidnappers attacked him in front of his girlfriend, Ariel Ocegueda, and their children, and demanded that Ocegueda tell them where Andrade kept his money.

There was no money, she told them. But they weren't convinced and demanded $50,000. After the kidnappers left with Andrade, in desperation, Ocegueda called Phoenix police, despite the abductors' threats that she had better not report them.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo