FOX UNDERCOVER (MyFoxBoston.com) -- The FBI is investigating a frightening underworld trend in Massachusetts: heavily armed kidnappers snatching victims off the street in broad daylight, holding and torturing their targets until relatives pay a hefty ransom for their release.
The brazen snatch-and-grabs show a new level of lawlessness, according to retired State Police Det. Lt. Tom Quigley, who ran the State Police Gang Unit before retiring.
"They're dangerous, there's no question about it," Quigley told FOX Undercover. " "It seems like they've become a little more sophisticated and taking more measures and taking more time and effort into their current activities than when I was involved."
The FBI says there are several kidnapping crews in the Lawrence area. The most sophisticated is led by Danny Veloz, nicknamed "The Maestro" for his leadership of a gang called The Joloperros, Spanish for Stick-up Men.
Court papers lay out in chilling detail how The Joloperros operate, watching their targets for months by way of GPS devices attached to victims' cars. The tracking devices would call Veloz's cell phone once the cars started moving, and The Maestro would track the cars' on a flat-screen television in his Lawrence living room.
"They're sparing no effort," said Quigley. "It tells me they have more numbers involved in their operations."
"They're watching the victims looking for the perfect place to strike?" FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked.
"Yes," Quigley replied.
So far the FBI has identified about 40 suspected kidnap crew members. Their investigation is made more difficult because victims are often reluctant to turn to authorities because of their own criminal activity or immigration status.
Heavily-armed kidnappers, sometimes dress like police, confront their targets in broad daylight, snatching them off the street and tossing them into a getaway car.
In one kidnapping last year, a man identified as Victim 11 was taken to the Manchester New Hampshire home of one of the alleged kidnappers.
"Throughout the night, the Veloz crew demanded the payment of ransom money from Victim 11. When Victim 11 was uncooperative, he was repeatedly beaten and burned with a hot iron," an FBI affidavit says.
"There has been torture involved which is not uncommon if they fail to cooperate initially," Quigley said.
Victim 11 was lucky enough to escape through a window and find his way to a neighbor's house. Inside the alleged kidnapper's apartment, authorities found their tools of the trade: police gear, a mask and guns. Four irons were also seized, one of which "appeared to have human flesh on it," records show.
The FBI believes many of the kidnappers are former drug traffickers. An agent wrote in an affidavit that the kidnappers believe their new trade is "less vulnerable to law enforcement detection and more lucrative" than drug dealing.
Ransoms can be lucrative, sometimes running in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. To get their money, victims have told the FBI how they were "abducted, burned, beaten, and tortured".
"They want money," Quigley said. "They want to be paid and they don't want law enforcement involved."
The kidnap victims themselves are often drug dealers, but the violence isn't limited to the criminal underworld. A kidnapping crew victim lashed out in revenge on Sept. 6, 2010, opening fire inside the crowded La Guira nightclub, targeting members of The Joloperros.
He hit and killed one but also shot and killed Amarilis Roldan, a mother of two enjoying a night out, as well as wounded a waitress.
The gunman, drug-dealer Johan Saint Clair, pleaded guilty to murder. Inside The Joloperros' members' car, authorities found flex cuffs, a Tazer gun, an iron and what appeared to be notes from surveillance of potential kidnap victims.
"Innocent people can become involved and no matter who's involved, law enforcement is not going to just stand by when people are running around with stolen vehicles, guns, extorting drug money. Its just not going to go unnoticed," Quigley said.
The investigation began two years ago and has led to indictments of thirteen people so far, including Veloz, on kidnapping charges.