Lori Tapia and two of her employees laid bound on the bathroom floor of her Chandler restaurant with two instructions: Don’t go into the dining room and don’t call the police.
Outside in a car traveling Valley streets, her husband, Martin, lay on the rear floorboard under watch by four captors. They kept a hood over his head and a pistol pressed against his ribs.
The Gilbert couple, who had left teaching careers to open their restaurant, on Feb. 25 suddenly became part of a dangerous and burgeoning trend that has come to the Valley with the influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico.
Martin Tapia, like hundreds of others, was snatched by cells of kidnappers and held for ransom — a practice that has been less publicized than ones in which competing bands of human smugglers snatch each other’s cargo or hold hostages in drop houses to leverage higher fees.
“We were just third-party victims of a world we don’t belong in,” Lori Tapia said.
Sgt. Phil Roberts, who oversees a portion of the Phoenix Police Department’s robbery unit, said his 17 detectives investigated 359 such kidnappings in 2007. And the trend has continued this year.
Mesa police also are beginning to see this type of kidnapping more regularly, said detective Chris Arvayo, police spokesman.
Roberts said the victims tend to be people from Mexico who have established themselves in the Valley by having a steady job or opening a business and are sometimes even U.S. citizens.
But Roberts said there are few innocent victims.
“We have yet to investigate a kidnapping where there has not been some drug-related involvement and/or coyote, human smuggling involvement with the victim,” Roberts said. “It may not exactly be him (the victim) but a relative involved in the trade.”
In the Tapias’ case, the connection to human smuggling came from a relative of Martin’s, who owed drug dealers money, according to a Chandler police report.
“You can’t pick your relatives,” Lori Tapia said. “Martin is the pillar of his family, and they took him to get to her.”
FOUR MEN WITH GUNS
The Tapias and their three children moved to the Valley three years ago from Douglas, where they taught at Cochise College and in the Douglas Unified School District.
They opened Ibiza Blue restaurant, a Hispanic nightclub at Alma School and Warner roads in Chandler, where the couple and their oldest son played as the house band.
The band, consisting of accordion, keyboards and drums, also performs at other bars and events.
It was about 2:15 p.m. Feb. 25 and the restaurant was closed when a group of men appeared. One asked to use the restroom, and Lori kept the others occupied at the door.
They left, but returned about 30 seconds later.
All four men had handguns and began barking orders, tying up Lori and her two employees and leaving with Martin.
“The minute they came in that restaurant with those guns, they changed our lives,” Lori said.
Martin doesn’t know where they took him, but he knows his captors were paranoid, looking around for police.
They took him to a house and placed him in a room with a mattress and an end table, where they explained that it was his relative’s drug debt they were trying to collect.
“They say, ‘The problem is not with you ... it’s just not your lucky day,’” Martin said.
Lori’s children found her and the employees in the restaurant about an hour later, and she had to convince her teenage daughter not to call the police. Lori had been instructed to wait for a phone call, but it never came.
She finally called Chandler police around 9:30 p.m.
According to a Chandler police report, investigators spent two days in the restaurant gathering fingerprints, and for 10 days followed leads and worked with Lori to find the kidnappers.
All the while, Lori had to convince the kidnappers she hadn’t called police.
To make sure she hadn’t, Martin’s abductors would seat him in front of the Spanish television news everyday at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. and threaten to kill him if the kidnapping was reported.
Roberts said Phoenix police are able to rescue about 60 percent of the victims. The rest either escape, are released or the victim’s family gets impatient and stops cooperating.
It takes days and sometimes weeks for a rescue and an arrest, but it also takes cooperation of the family. Roberts said most investigations are successful when the family helps.
“We have never had a victim turn up dead,” Roberts said.
HISTORY OF KIDNAPPING
Human rights groups consider Mexico one of the leaders in kidnapping in the world.
According to a 2007 human rights report by the U.S. State Department, “kidnapping remained a serious problem for persons of all socioeconomic level” in Mexico.
Experts interviewed by the Tribune don’t believe the kidnappings plaguing the Valley are a matter of Mexican culture or tradition. Instead, they said the kidnappings have more to do with economics and politics.
Jack Cloonan, a former FBI agent now president of Clayton Consultants, a company that helps individuals and companies resolve kidnappings in Mexico and around the world, said the economic disparities of Mexico and its high level of corruption are a “perfect storm” for kidnappers there.
Cloonan said there are traditional kidnap-for-ransom gangs that go back years, but they are now getting competition from drug cartels and other organized crime syndicates.
He said kidnapping is causing the middle class to flee Mexico.
Carlos Velez-Ibanez, an anthropologist and chairman of Arizona State University’s Department of Transborder Studies, said Mexican culture is based on mutual trust, so kidnapping violates all Mexican values.
Cloonan and Velez said the Valley’s kidnapping problems stem from the mingling of drug smuggling and human smuggling.
“It is the commoditization of people as objects to be bought and sold,” Velez said. “It’s not Mexican — it has to do with the commodity.”
INROADS IN MESA
Inquiries find East Valley cities have no where near the number of kidnappings that Phoenix has, but Mesa is beginning to get its share.
For example, two gunmen in December walked into a beauty salon at Eighth Avenue and Alma School Road and forced owner Reynalda Valdez-Cardenas to go with them.
She was released four days later in Phoenix.
A month later, two men were kidnapped from a home in the 1200 block of East Elton Avenue, near Stapley Drive and Broadway Road.
They were roughed up before being released a few days later.
Both cases remain unsolved, and even though there were ransom demands, it is unclear why they were taken, Arvayo said.
“That’s one of the hard things about these cases — we’ll investigate and we’ll never find out what the exact reason is, even though all the players know,” Arvayo said.
Mesa police did arrest Ramon Cabrera-Soto, 30, and Jose Sergio Espinoza-Vera, 35, on suspicion of kidnapping on March 10 after they lured Eric Galindo-Garnica to a house under the pretense he was going to repair a car for someone.
Galindo-Garnica told police Cabrera-Soto stuck a gun to his neck and Espinoza-Vera placed a hood over his head and forced him to the floor, according to court documents.
The kidnappers, strangers to Galindo-Garnica, then called his friend and brother and demanded $40,000 for his safe return.
He was able to escape a while later.
“A few years ago you couldn’t say we were dealing with this on a regular basis,” Arvayo said. “However, the city’s growing and it’s something we’re having to deal with.”
Roberts said as the kidnapping problem has grown in Phoenix, other crimes that his unit investigates, such as all types of robberies, get less immediate attention.
Kidnapping requires immediate action and lots of manpower, he said.
LIVES IN THE BALANCE
Martin Tapia stood between two of his captors on March 6 as they argued about whether he should live or die.
Eventually, one pointed a gun at the other and said Martin would live.
A day before, Chandler police set up a sting in Phoenix in which a SWAT team swooped in during a money drop and arrested Arturo Torrez, 35, in Martin’s kidnapping.
One suspect got away.
Martin was dropped off at 23rd Street and Broadway Road in Phoenix and told to count to 1,000.
“I counted to 99,” he said.
Martin decided not to prosecute Torrez, still in Maricopa County Jail awaiting transfer to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Even though Martin and the kidnappers developed a rapport, they made one thing clear when they let him go, Lori Tapia said.
“They said, ‘You stay out of our lives and we’ll stay out of yours,’ ” she said. “That’s why Martin made the choice not to press charges.”
Tribune writer Eddi Trevizo contributed to this report.