Drug-related kidnappings in El Paso hard to pin down but ICE stands by 6

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The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency counts six kidnappings last year while the El Paso Police Department contends there were none at all.

Three major law enforcement agencies are in disagreement over the number of kidnappings in El Paso last year that were connected to the drug trade and ongoing cartel war in Juarez.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency counts six kidnappings while the El Paso Police Department contends there were none at all.

“We have not had one kidnapping related to anything going on in Mexico reported to the El Paso Police Department,” Officer Chris Mears, a department spokesman, said this week.

The FBI, which is responsible for investigating kidnappings, puts the number somewhere in between six and zero.

FBI spokeswoman Andrea Simmons said the agency opened investigations last year into “less than 10” kidnappings, “some of which have been drug related.”

“The FBI has not seen six drug kidnappings,” Simmons said. “We’ve had less than that.”

She later said the number was, in fact, “far fewer than six.”

No one with the three agencies, which regularly communicate with one another, can explain why their numbers are so different.

But the Police Department and FBI tend to count kidnappings that are reported to them while Immigration and Customs (ICE), which doesn’t investigate kidnappings, keeps track of cases it hears about and documents, whether another law enforcement agency investigates them or not.

Drug war resolution coming back to City Council

The discussion about kidnappings in El Paso and drug-related violence in Juarez arose at an El Paso City Council meeting two weeks ago because of a resolution that the city’s Border Relations Committee brought to the council for approval.

The resolution was intended as a sympathetic gesture toward Juarez. But it gained national attention when the council approved it with a 12-word amendment that city Rep. Beto O’Rourke added calling for congressional debate on the legalization of drugs.

Mayor John Cook vetoed the resolution and the council sustained the his veto last week ago. But the original resolution – without O’Rourke’s amendment – is coming back to council for consideration Tuesday.

O’Rourke cited Newsweek magazine’s Dec. 8 report, headlined “Bloodshed On the Border,” which attributed the assertion about six drug-related kidnappings in El Paso to Kevin Kozak, acting special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s office of investigations in El Paso.

“For now, drug organizations prefer to abduct their quarry in the United States and spirit them across the border before harming or killing them,” the article stated. “Kozak says that in the past year, a half-dozen kidnappings tied to narcotraffickers have taken place in El Paso.”

Mears said he was surprised by the report of kidnappings in El Paso and made inquiries about what the Police Department knew, expecting a flood of media calls.

The calls never came but Mears was ready with an official response.

“Upon hearing that, we double checked because we routinely meet with the local officers of the federal agencies, and nobody, no federal agency, has any information about any kidnapping out of El Paso,” he said.

But Kozak stood by his agency’s figures in an interview today with NewspaperTree.com. He also provided details about some of those kidnappings and an update on the current situation in Juarez.

The kidnappings, he said, have been discussed at inter-agency briefings involving officers from the Police Department and the FBI.

The first drug-related kidnapping case ICE learned of in which the victim was taken through El Paso to Juarez actually occurred in Indiana in December 2007. ICE isn’t including that in its list of El Paso kidnappings, but it was associated with the cartel war that was beginning to heat up in Juarez, Kozak said.

In January, an unidentified man was kidnapped in El Paso and taken to Juarez over a 2,000-pound marijuana drug debt. Kozak said the report of the crime was credible but ICE never learned the victim’s identity or fate.

The second case of the year came in February when ICE learned of a planned kidnapping. Kozak said ICE referred it FBI and learned the kidnapping attempt was made and foiled near the airport.

“We were informed that the person was kidnapped later, and we haven’t seen or heard from that person, but we shared the information with Mexican authorities,” he said.

The case of Ricardo Calleros-Godinez

The third kidnapping, also in February, was that of Miguel Rueda, a convicted cocaine smuggler, who was snatched in El Paso and taken to Juarez.

Federal court records say U.S. federal agents caught the alleged kidnapper, Ricardo Calleros-Godinez, who is in custody and awaiting trial in El Paso. Rueda is serving a 15-year sentence on the smuggling charge.

Calleros and Rueda worked together transporting and selling drugs. When law officers intercepted a load of marijuana that Rueda was transporting to Iowa, he “incurred a drug debt with Calleros,” records state.

Calleros allegedly arranged to have Rueda kidnapped and held until the debt was paid. Rueda was trussed up with duct tape and driven to Juarez in the back of a car.

Rueda told federal authorities he was released four or five days later after transferring the ownership of land belonging to his family in Juarez to Calleros.

In the course of its role in that case, Kozak said, ICE learned of two other kidnappings allegedly involving Calleros that have not led to charges but did go down in ICE’s records for the year.

“The final El Paso kidnapping was in March ’08 and involved and individual who escaped while being taken to the border by managing to stab one of the kidnappers with a knife,” Kozak said.

In each case, he said, the kidnappings involved people who were involved in the drug trade but were not U.S. citizens.

“We believe the majority are Mexican nationals who may have been here,” he said. “They were not innocent persons in their home but people tied to Mexican drug trafficking.”

Asked if the pace of killings and violence seems to be letting up in Juarez, Kozak said it is not.

“We have frequent, almost daily contacts with authorities in Juarez and unfortunately the violence that is narcotics related doesn’t seem to be diminishing,” he said. “We haven’t seen any sign of changes in narcotics trafficking, in how they communicate or how they exercise command and control.”

While El Paso has not entirely escaped the drug war between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels, and possibly others, Kozak said, emphasized that nothing has happened to anyone in El Paso who is not involved in the drug trade.

Juarez council members sleeping in El Paso?

Another assertion that has been difficult to pin down was contained in a recent article in the Dallas Morning News, which reported that members of the Juarez city council are their spending nights in El Paso and commuting to work for safety reasons.

“Other newcomers include the Juarez mayor and other city officials, who commute to work daily, said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh,” the article read.

It quoted Shapleigh directly as saying, “Just like the good people of Houston took in the refugees from New Orleans, El Pasoans will also help the refugees from Juarez.”

Shapleigh, however, did not answer or return NewspaperTree.com’s repeated calls on the subject this week.

Mayor John Cook, who has close ties with some the Juarez mayor and some city council members, said he is not aware that any of them are coming to El Paso at night for their safety.

“They would have to rent a bus, though,” he joked. “There’s 19 of them.”

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