PHOENIX - In the last two weeks, federal authorities have investigated four cases of what appear to have been immigrant smugglers trying to hold up rival human traffickers so they can kidnap their customers and hold them for ransom.
While it's not yet known whether Arizona is seeing an increase in such rip-offs overall, the recent rash of cases does underscore the rising violence in the illegal trade and illustrates the dangerous shortcut that smugglers take to try to make quick cash in the United States.
The latest example of a suspected smuggler rip-off came last week in Pima County, where local authorities believe armed smugglers may have tried to steal illegal immigrants from rival traffickers north of Tucson. Three people were killed in the incident.
Arizona, the busiest illegal entry point on the U.S.-Mexico border, leads all other southern border states in smuggler-on-smuggler rip-offs. Over the last four years, a smaller number of cases also have surfaced in Houston, officials said.
In this scheme, armed smugglers will usually pull over a rival's smuggling vehicle, forcibly take the illegal immigrants inside, bring them to a stash house and pressure friends and relatives of border-crossers to scrape together enough money for the ransom.
With ransoms typically ranging from $1,200 to $2,500 per person, a vehicle packed with 20 or so immigrants can prove lucrative for smugglers.
Officials say smugglers are drawn to the scheme because they don't have to pay employees to recruit would-be border-crossers in Mexico and guides to lead immigrants through the Arizona desert.
"They lose a lot of overhead costs," said Angel Rascon, who supervises smuggling investigations in Arizona for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "The entire fees that are collected by the rip-off crews are for their own gain."
Smugglers have stolen clients from rivals just feet away from the Arizona-Mexico border. The rip-offs also are taking place in smuggling stash houses in metropolitan Phoenix, a hub for transporting illegal immigrants to jobs across the country.
In 2003, a rip-off prompted smugglers to track down their rivals on Interstate 10 near Casa Grande and open fire on two moving vehicles that were carrying their customers. Four people were killed, and five were injured. The shooting also caused a three-vehicle wreck that injured three people not connected to either smuggling group.
The rip-off trend began to emerge in the late 1990s and has since remained fairly steady.
Immigration agents in Arizona worked more than 60 smuggler rip-off cases from April 2005 to July 2006. Since then, only five have been reported, including the four in the last two weeks, officials said.
Rascon said it's too early in the peak immigrant smuggling season, which usually begins around mid-January and typically ends in May, to determine whether rip-offs are increasing in Arizona.
Authorities also said it's likely that some rip-offs go unreported.
Lt. Anthony Vasquez, who is in charge of the Phoenix Police Department's robbery unit, said smugglers believe the fear of deportation keeps immigrants from reporting the kidnappings.
"For the most part, these are victims that are not going to be coming forward to try to prosecute them - and (the smugglers) know that," Vasquez said.
Immigrants who are waiting for their ransom to be paid can face a litany of abuses, such as sexual assaults, beatings and murders. Rip-off crews also usually don't honor the down-payments that immigrants might have made on their smuggling fees.
After ransoms have been paid, some smugglers will help the immigrants get to their final destination.
"In other cases, they collect the funds and they literally kick them to the curb in Phoenix," Rascon said.