"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.

Inside the west Phoenix house where they took him, the kidnappers tied Andrade to a chair in a bloody closet, which apparently had been used to torture previous victims. He could hear screams as kidnappers unleashed horrific attacks on hostages locked up in other rooms. Like them, Andrade endured ferocious assaults. While his girlfriend listened on the phone at one point, they burned his back with cigarettes and a blowtorch. They stabbed his hand, cut his ears and fingers with scissors, attempted to rip his eye out of its socket, and split open his eyebrow.

Then, they ordered him to bend over.

When he refused, the attackers rained blows on him and forced his legs apart. Andrade's blood-curdling screams elicited no mercy from the men as they rammed him with a broomstick, a pair of scissors, and a thick wooden dowel, shredding his colon. Andrade endured four days of such torture before police were able to track down the kidnappers and rescue him.

Andrade recovered and was allowed to stay in the United States to testify against one of his tormentors, now serving a 54-year prison sentence in Arizona.

In another case, a 32-year-old migrant was kidnapped last October by two gunmen who demanded $100,000 from his family. Police believe the victim was involved with smugglers, which explains why his family never reported his abduction.

For more than a week, he was locked inside the bedroom of a Phoenix home without food or water. He overheard his captors say they were tired of waiting for the ransom. They said they were going to bury him alive in a makeshift grave inside the house. Using a concrete saw, the men cut through the foundation and dug a six-foot grave inside a bedroom. While the men tore through the ground, the man managed to free himself through a window. He ran down the street to a nearby house, called police, and the kidnappers were soon arrested by HIKE detectives.

Though he escaped death at the hands of smugglers the first time, he may not have been so lucky after his deportation. He was found murdered a week later in Mexico.

Though the Phoenix area isn't like Mexico — where crime syndicates make fortunes kidnapping random powerful and rich people (or sometimes their children) and extorting their families — innocent victims have been kidnapped locally.

An illegal immigrant, who had lived in Phoenix for about 10 years, had just stepped off a bus. It was a hot August day last year, and he was walking to his home near 32nd Street and Camelback Road. A van pulled up beside him, and men with guns jumped out and forced him inside the vehicle. They sped away to a drop house near 24th Street and McDowell Road. The man was locked up for four days before his family was able to scrounge together the $2,800 ransom. Once they paid it, he was freed.

The man went to police and led IIMPACT detectives to the house where he had been held. Police later learned that the victim was grabbed off the street because one of 11 undocumented immigrants whom the kidnappers were holding hostage had escaped. They had to replace the escapee or pay their boss the ransom out of their own pockets.

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