Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Houston: Kidnapping ring similar to scams in Mexico

Dale Lezon:

Houston police announced Wednesday the discovery of a kidnapping and robbery operation in which unsuspecting people were snatched and held hostage until their relatives paid ransoms of a few thousand dollars.

While the actions of the ring mirror random kidnappings that have plagued Mexico and other Latin American nations for years, police said they have no evidence to suggest the Houston ring is connected to organized-crime groups in other countries. But experts familiar with so called "express kidnappings" taking place just south of the border said the Texas operation appears similar.

"It seems like it's reaching Houston," said Nestor Rodriguez, a University of Houston sociologist. "The question is: 'Is this going to be a pattern, or is it just one group?'"

Police said Elionay Pena, 47, Ricardo Patino, 24 and Jose Alberto Martinez, 19, are charged with aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery. They are being held in the Harris County Jail with no bail set.

Pena, Patino and Martinez are probably part of a larger local group primarily targeting Spanish-speaking victims who may be wary about reporting what happened, police said.

The men were arrested July 6 after one of their victims escaped, police said. The man, unidentified by police, had been waiting at a bus stop on South Gessner near the Katy Freeway service road on July 3 when four men — including the three who were later arrested — approached and forced him inside a waiting pickup, police said.

He told police that another hostage — who had been grabbed earlier — was in the truck.

The abductors drove them to a house in the 8000 block of John Street, where at least three other people were being held for ransom, police said. The victims were tied up and locked inside a room at the house.

The captors demanded the victims give them contact information for their relatives, who were then ordered to pay about $2,000 each to secure the victims' safe release. They threatened to kill them if police were called.

Over the next few days, the other victims were picked up by their family members. The last hostage was unable to contact his relatives by July 6 and offered to pay his own ransom if the attackers would drive him to the restaurant where he worked.

They agreed. They drove him to an Outback steakhouse in the 20000 block of the Katy Freeway and waited outside for him to go in and get his paycheck.

Once inside, the victim, 34, told his boss what had happened and the manager called police.

Officers arrested the three alleged kidnappers outside the restaurant.

"If it had not been for his quick thinking, there's no telling if his release would have been secured through family members or what," said HPD Sgt. Eddie Diaz.

Police admitted they have little information about the group, other than calling them "organized." They don't know how long they have been working in Houston, how many captives they may have taken in the past, or if they can be linked to any other kidnapping operations.

"They (the suspects) are speaking, but they're not necessarily forthcoming," Diaz said.

And neither are the other victims, police said.

"I think their (immigration) status has a part to play in it. They are afraid that because of their status, they may be turned over to (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or be sent back," said Diana Gonzales, an HPD investigator.

HPD officials, however, could not confirm if the victim or his captors were undocumented immigrants.

The operation sounds familiar to Hector Navarro, assistant security chief at the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. He said such kidnappings are nearly a daily occurrence in Mexico.

Attackers grab people off the street or from taxis, drive them to ATMs and force them to withdraw $500 to $1,000 from their accounts, Navarro said. And similar to the Houston victims, people in Mexico don't call the police

The police, he said, often don't investigate the crimes.

Also, he said, the kidnappers threaten to kill their victims if they go to law enforcement authorities. They often steal the victims' identification documents to learn their home addresses and tell them they know how to find them if the police are told about the crimes.

"They'll take whatever you have," Navarro said. "They slap you on the face and tell you to go home."

The U.S. Department of State can't say for certain if the express kidnappings are becoming prevalent in the United States, but warns travelers about the dangers of the kidnappings in Mexico, said Kurtis Cooper, a department spokesman.

"So-called express kidnappings, an attempt to get quick cash in exchange for the release of an individual, have occurred in almost all the large cities in Mexico and appear to target not only the wealthy, but also the middle class," according to the department's Web site.

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