By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Even so, guards watched them closely and made it clear that even though the initial smuggling fee had been paid, there was an additional price on their heads. The captors provided phones so the pollos could make arrangements to have extra cash sent.
Sometimes, pollos are kidnapped at gunpoint by gangsters known as bajadores from one drop house and taken to another operated by a rival organization, which then takes over extorting the captives.
Once some pollos arrive at the second house, no matter which band of coyotes is holding them, often they are forced to strip naked and pose in sexually humiliating positions while their captors take pictures. Some may be made to work off their debts by becoming guards, drivers or maids in a smuggling organization.
Violence houses are the last stop for most pollos. But they are the first stop for bajadores captured by the coyotes they've robbed, and for rival smugglers of humans or drugs believed to have access to large sums of cash. The torture administered to these competitors is especially fierce.
The violence houses are evidence that although violent crimes have decreased in Arizona and across the country, brutality continues to run rampant within the smuggling world. Law enforcement is concerned that violence may spread vastly beyond that world to residents with no connection to it — as it has in Mexico. Authorities have seen a handful of troubling cases where local Latinos were targeted because kidnappers needed to replace an escaped hostage or because they thought their new victim had money.
The kidnapping business is thriving in Phoenix, because border traffic passing through Arizona has increased more and more over the past 15 years. The increase stems, in part, from border-security initiatives that closed off entry points popular with illegal border crossers in Texas and California during the mid-1990s. As migration routes shifted to Arizona, many immigrants turned to coyotes to help them get across the Sonoran Desert.
Smuggling immigrants became a profitable venture, almost as lucrative as running drugs or weapons. Drug cartels joined forces with human smugglers in Mexico or branched out to include humans in their cargoes.
With so much money changing hands, other criminals — both U.S. and Mexican citizens — have been lured into the trade. Some work for a human-smuggling ring by renting and operating drop houses where pollos can be stashed. Others work as guards in these houses, or transport immigrants or work as watchmen along the border to help the coyotes evade U.S. Border Patrol agents.
Police trying to dismantle the criminal organizations face a daunting task. But they have had some success.
Victor Manuel Castillo-Estobar, a major figure in a criminal syndicate that involved human smuggling, was sentenced in May to 42 years in prison. The 26-year-old rented homes, set up utilities, hired guards and moved kidnapped immigrants among seven homes that were part of his operation.
One reason investigators make only a dent in such operations is that, even when immigrants are freed after their ransoms have been paid, they rarely complain to police for fear of deportation. Also, many smuggling operations have been in place since long before law enforcement agencies deployed specialized units to attack the problem.
South of the border, the men pitching smuggling services at such places as bus stops in border towns are the first links in the chain. They charge varying amounts, usually $1,800 to $2,500, to smuggle a single pollo into the United States, making arrangements with family members to wire smuggling fees. Depending on how a smuggling ring is organized, a cut of that money goes to subcontractors who don't work for a single criminal syndicate but who provide a specific service — such as operating a string of drop houses where cargo can be locked up.
Car thieves are paid to steal heavy-duty trucks or vans, stock them with supplies and camouflage them in the desert. Coyotes use the vehicles to move immigrants to drop houses. Others hired to drive these vehicles can earn $50 to $100 for each illegal immigrant they ferry.
As they sneak across the desert, coyotes take their cues from spotters in the mountains, armed with weapons, surveillance equipment and cell phones or two-way radios. They warn coyotes below about the movement of Border Patrol agents. Leaders in these organized-crime operations even hire technicians to erect cell-phone towers to ensure uninterrupted communication.
Once in the Phoenix area, coyotes pull up to the drop houses and pass their loads of worn and exhausted men, women and children to a new set of hired hands. These guards play different roles in the smuggling operations. Some make sure pollos don't escape, while others dole out threats and beatings. Guards generally are paid for each person they watch, and sometimes are dispatched to collect ransoms.
From the moment pollos are in the coyotes' grasp, both captive and captor must be wary of the bajadores, who sometimes burst into homes using homemade battering rams to kidnap hostages. They also often attack immigrants walking across the Arizona desert.
A woman named Marisol and her brother had returned to Mexico to bury their mother. They hired a coyote to guide them back to Phoenix, where they had been living for seven years. They walked through the desert for several days with about 30 other people.