Seized

Inside the brutal world of America's kidnapping capital

Cops arrested two suspects and rescued 10 pollos. They turned over the hostages — including the random kidnapping victim who had led them to the drop house — to federal immigration agents.

About 3 a.m. on May 5, four men with handguns stormed a Maryvale home where U.S. citizens Estephany Sauceda, her infant child, and her mentally challenged 22-year-old sister, Karely, were sleeping. The men demanded drugs and money, saying they were looking for "the man with the white car." Sauceda told them that they didn't have any drugs or cash. Investigators believe that the men were looking to collect on a drug debt, possibly for 1,300 pounds of marijuana that had been stolen from them. Sauceda's boyfriend had ties to the suspected thieves, but he had been in jail for more than a month on unrelated charges.

The intruders didn't care. One way or another, they would recover their losses. The gunmen decided to kidnap Sauceda, but she told them she had to take care of her baby. So they took Karely, who has the mental capacity of a 12-year-old. The kidnappers held Karely hostage in a house at 48th Street and Baseline Road, demanding $50,000 from her family.

A kidnapping victim rescued by the Phoenix Police Department’s Home Invasion and Kidnapping Enforcement unit.
Phoenix Police Department/Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement (HIKE)
A kidnapping victim rescued by the Phoenix Police Department’s Home Invasion and Kidnapping Enforcement unit.
A Phoenix drop house where coyotes held more than two dozen illegal immigrants hostage. Kidnappers force their victims to strip to make it hard for them to escape.
Phoenix Police Department/Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement (HIKE)
A Phoenix drop house where coyotes held more than two dozen illegal immigrants hostage. Kidnappers force their victims to strip to make it hard for them to escape.

The captors assaulted the girl and threatened to cut off her fingers if the money wasn't paid. After nine days, HIKE detectives found the dwelling, and on May 19, a SWAT team burst in and freed Karley.

Most kidnapping victims in the Phoenix area aren't involved in the drug trade — they simply are trying to get here to find work. But when they are involved, police have a harder time saving them.

On March 13, migrant Jose de Jesus Garcias Florez was in Glendale working at a landscaping job when he was kidnapped by two men. He was a day laborer, but on the side, he drove cars used in smuggling operations to and from Mexico. The following day, he called a friend and asked for help paying his ransom. During several calls to the friend, the kidnappers said they would harm Garcias Florez if the ransom went unpaid. Unable to come up with the money, the friend called police on March 15.

By the time investigators figured out where he was, it was too late.

Garcias Florez made his last call pleading for money about 7:30 p.m. on March 15. Less than three hours later, his body was found on the floor of a mobile home in west Phoenix. His body — hands and feet bound in duct tape — was covered by a blanket. Police said he was suffocated by his captors.

The following day, police arrested two men in the murder. They discovered that Garcias Florez had known his kidnappers; they all had come to the United States together from Mexico. One suspect told police that Garcias Florez had hired one of the kidnappers to sell drugs but had fired him because he was using too much meth. Out of money and desperate for a fix, the unemployed drug dealer hatched a plan to hire a crew to kidnap Garcias Florez and extort him for money.

The potential for violence and even death is an "accepted risk" for smugglers, HIKE's Burgett says.

When investigators encounter a case in which the victim has no discernible connection to smuggling — like the one involving Karely Sauceda — they're particularly concerned.

"A young Latino is kidnapped, and at first, you think, there must be some connection, but there isn't. [He or she's] a U.S. citizen," Burgett says.

"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."

Despite the potential for violence, immigrants searching for a better existence are lured by coyotes because the risk they face with them isn't greater than the risk of attempting to traverse the treacherous Sonoran Desert alone.

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.

The initiative intensified border security in California, and by 1997, the feds had doubled the number of border agents in San Diego, doubled that state'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 dropped to about 100,000.

During that same time, the feds approved Operation Safeguard to fortify the shared 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 much smaller investment yielded a far different result than the California and Texas operations.

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