February 11, 2009— -- In what officials caution is now a dangerous and even deadly crime wave, Phoenix, Arizona has become the kidnapping capital of America, with more incidents than any other city in the world outside of Mexico City and over 370 cases last year alone. But local authorities say Washington, DC is too obsessed with al Qaeda terrorists to care about what is happening in their own backyard right now.
"We're in the eye of the storm," Phoenix Police Chief Andy Anderson told ABC News of the violent crimes and ruthless tactics spurred by Mexico's drug cartels that have expanded business across the border. "If it doesn't stop here, if we're not able to fix it here and get it turned around, it will go across the nation," he said.
California Attorney General Jerry Brown warned that as the U.S. government focuses so intently on Islamic extremist groups, other types of terrorists – those involved with the same kidnappings, extortion and drug cartels that are sweeping Phoenix – are overlooked.
"Those [criminals], for the average Californian or the average America, may be a more immediate threat to their well being," Brown said.
In fact, kidnappings and other crimes connected to the Mexican drug cartels are quickly spreading across the border, from Texas to California. The majority of the victims are either illegal aliens or connected to the drug trade.
An ABC News' investigation uncovered horrific cases of chopped-off hands, legs and heads when a victim's family doesn't pay up fast enough.
"They're ruthless, so now they're ripping each other off, but doing it in our city," Anderson said.
To try and combat the crime wave, the Phoenix police have created a special unit to handle the kidnappings called the Home Invasion Task Force, which has pulled more than a dozen officers off other assignments. The crimes are occurring across the valley and in all types of neighborhoods, authorities warn.
Crimes Endanger More Than Just Victims
"These are very dangerous situations here, not only dangerous situations for our community, but also extremely dangerous for our officers who have to go out and track these guys and arrest these folks," Anderson said.
In some cases, dozens of people at a time have been kidnapped. They are often illegal aliens whose captors then demand ransom from the victims' relatives in Mexico.
ABC News followed Sergeant Phil Roberts in Phoenix on a day when his unit was working on three on-going kidnapping cases and trying to find a victim in peril.
"Our victim's probably being brutalized, he's probably being beaten up and tortured and God knows what else is taking place," Roberts told ABC News. "And we don't know whether he's a legal or illegal. We look at it as if he's a human being. He's being tortured out there, and we've got to do everything we can to try and rescue that individual."
Watch Brian Ross' full report tonight on Nightline at 11:30 p.m. ET.