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Seized 

Inside the brutal world of America's kidnapping capital

Thursday, Aug 12 2010
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Maria was drifting off to sleep on the bedroom floor. She could hear women getting raped in the next room. But she didn't hear screams — she heard the laughter of male guards.

The women had been drugged, as had Maria when she walked into the house. The guards forced her to swallow a red liquid and handed her some chalky white pills. She drank the liquid and tucked the pills in the side of her mouth, but they were slowly dissolving.

The drugs were beginning to deaden her senses.

click to flip through (14) ILLUSTRATION BY GRAHAM SMITH
  • ILLUSTRATION BY GRAHAM SMITH
 

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Maria had arrived at the modest three-bedroom house in west Phoenix several days earlier in the back of a white van. She was one of about a dozen immigrants, along with her husband, who had hired coyotes to smuggle them into the United States. They each paid the human smugglers about $1,800 to guide them safely through the treacherous Arizona desert.

Their guides betrayed them. They delivered them to other coyotes, who were more vicious than their counterparts. The kidnappers demanded another $1,700 apiece from Maria and the 12 others being held, including two young boys.

The armed guards had tried to lock Maria in the same room as the other women. She was gripped by fear as she watched one of the guards stripping off the women's clothes.

Maria's husband argued with the kidnappers, telling them that she was sick, that he needed to keep an eye on her. Rather than hassle with a couple of the pollos (smugglers' slang for their cargo), the guards allowed them to stay together.

The smugglers stashed her and the men in the master bedroom.

When it was safe, she pulled the pills from her mouth and gave them to her husband. He slipped them into the pocket of his whitewashed jeans.

She looked around the bare bedroom at the men sitting on the floor. They were tired and worn. There was a large piece of plywood nailed over the window; a dead bolt on the door, locked from the outside.

There was no escape.

The pollos had come from poverty-stricken towns in Mexico and Guatemala in search of a better existence. Maria later said in an interview that she and her husband had hoped to find work. Back home in Mexico, jobs were scarce, and the lucky few who found them earned a meager 100 pesos for a full day's work — less than $7.80 a day.

The promise of a living wage is what drove Maria and the others to walk through the desert for eight days, crawl through tunnels, move from camp to camp, car to car, and from one band of coyotes to another within the same smuggling operation.

Now the kidnappers demanded that the victims come up with large ransoms. Captives called families back home, or relatives in Arizona, pleading for money they knew the families probably didn't have. Days went by as Maria's family worked to come up with more cash. The impatient guards threatened to beat their victims and dump their dead bodies in the desert.

Terrified and confused, Maria was allowed to leave the room only when it was her turn to help cook for the guards or to clean the house. The women talked quietly while they prepared meals for the hostages — a bean burrito, a few ramen noodles or a boiled egg, split among four people. The immigrants weren't given anything to drink; they slurped water from a bathroom sink.

The captives had no idea that a team of police detectives, analysts and U.S. immigration agents had begun a rescue mission to release them and arrest their kidnappers. An anonymous caller had tipped off Phoenix police about the home where the illegal immigrants were being held. The tip was passed on to members of a force called IIMPACT (Illegal Immigration Prevention Apprehension Co-op Team).

Investigators spent three days deciphering the tipster's information before finally pinpointing the house. A SWAT team then raided the house, arrested four suspected kidnappers and rescued the hostages, including Maria.

"The looks on their faces, they just lit up," Phoenix police Sgt. Harry Reiter, who supervises IIMPACT detectives, says of the rescued hostages. "They didn't care that [they would have to] go back south of the border — they just wanted out of the kidnappers' hold."

The pollos were taken into police custody, given food and beverages and interviewed by detectives.

When it was her turn, Maria tugged nervously at the sleeves of her shirt as she answered the detectives' questions. Her voice was barely audible, and she stared at the floor of the small cubicle. Her answers were devoid of detail, but the detective extracted information from her to build a case against the coyotes. They spoke in Spanish as a reporter listened.

"Did they have guns?" the investigator asked Maria.

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