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
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.
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.
"What did they look like?"
She pointed to the gun strapped to the detective's waist. "Square, like yours."
"Did they assault you?" he asked, after she told him that the guards raped the other women.
She shook her head. "No."
"Are you sure?" he pressed.
She nodded, just barely.
Finally, the immigrants were turned over to federal immigration agents. A select few, needed to testify against their captors, eventually would be granted temporary visas and released to family.
Maria and her husband were not among them. They were locked in a holding tank, awaiting deportation.
Phoenix is labeled the kidnapping capital of the United States today because of drug smuggling — and human smuggling — out of Mexico.
"Kidnapping capital" is a catchphrase that U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and other elected officials use to alarm voters into buying the get-tough-on-illegals policies they're selling. But it's the smuggled immigrants — not the general public — who are overwhelmingly the primary victims.
In 2008, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, 368 reported kidnappings occurred in Phoenix, up from 160 in 1999. Almost all the abductions were inside the smuggling world. In 2008, IIMPACT detectives worked 63 kidnapping cases, investigated 49 drop houses and arrested 129 human smugglers.
Authorities say the statistics represent only a fraction of the actual kidnappings in metro Phoenix. The smattering of cases that are reported comes from victims who escaped, from families desperate to free their loved ones, or from anonymous tips.
In the absence of federal immigration reform, experts believe that immigrants will continue to risk their lives and rely on coyotes. And it doesn't seem likely that a fix will come soon.
A report published in October 2009 by the Immigration Policy Center think tank ("Breaking Down the Problems: What's Wrong With Our Immigration System?") highlights some of the major problems with federal immigration policy, including arbitrary caps on visas and an enforcement-only approach that doesn't provide practical legal alternatives for entering the United States.
For example, Congress places equal limits on the number of U.S. visas available to each nation. Mexico, where more than 1 million people have applications pending, has the same quota as Belgium. Also, federal authorities say one goal of immigration policy is to reunite families by admitting immigrants with relatives in the Unites States, but backlogs mean that it can take 20 years or longer for immigration officials to review an application for a green card.
As investigators questioned Maria, they learned that the smuggling organization that had taken her and her husband hostage also operated what police call a "violence house." If she and the others hadn't been rescued, victims whose families didn't come up with the ransom money probably would've wound up there.
Guards inside such places employ a brutal style of persuasion.
They will beat and torture victims while family members listen on the telephone. The torment continues for as long as it takes to get the money, until hostages die from their injuries, or — in rare instances — until police free them.
Investigators wanted desperately to find the violence house, but the smugglers carefully keep its location secret.
As coyotes move their human cargo from place to place, they conceal pollos under blankets or plywood. Maria's captors had stopped briefly at the violence house on their way to the dwelling where IIMPACT had found them, but she and the other hostages were covered in the back of the van, so she couldn't discern the location.
Detectives tried to piece together scant details from victims. One pollo told investigators they had traveled about 10 minutes between the two houses. Another said it was only five. The cops were never able to find the place.
Tracking down violence houses is a priority for IIMPACT officers, who have seen firsthand the chilling brutality that takes place inside them.
A cell-phone video that investigators confiscated from one such drop house, and which they allowed a reporter to view, captured a typical beating: A man with wavy black hair and a pale face can be seen lying on his side, a semi-automatic weapon just inches from his head. A coyote's hand is pushing down the man's head to keep him from moving. The victim's eyes are squeezed tightly shut. For a moment, he opens them — wide — and the horror is unmistakable. The gun still in his face, he squeezes his eyes shut. His lips are moving rapidly (there is no sound on the video). He opens and closes his eyes a second time. The hand that is holding down the victim's head suddenly goes up in the air, and — crack! — a fist slams into the side of the man's head, ripping the skin near his ear. Blood oozes down his temple. The video ends.
Kidnappers kick and punch hostages, beat them with baseball bats, submerge them in bathtubs and electrically shock them, burn their flesh with blowtorches, smash their fingers with bricks, slice their bodies with butcher knives, shoot them in their arms and legs, and cut open their backs with wire cutters. The kidnappers usually videotape the sexual humiliation and violence and send the images to family members if ransoms aren't paid.
The violence house is one of several — usually three — dwellings where smuggled immigrants are stashed.
Horrible conditions intensify after the first house, which some victims describe as almost welcoming.
Juan, a 59-year-old diabetic from Guatemala, hired a coyote to bring him to Phoenix so he could spend time with his 88-year-old mother. He said in an interview that he and other pollos were allowed to move freely around the first house. They could even get food from a well-stocked refrigerator. No weapons were brandished and no threats against their lives were made.
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.
In an interview with Phoenix New Times, Marisol said she prayed she would make it back safely to her husband and two children. She and her brother eventually did, but not before they were intercepted in the desert by eight gunmen. The bajadores barked at the migrants to stand in a circle and then get down on their knees. One by one, they pressed the barrels of their guns to their victims' heads and forced them to hand over cash and anything of value, including shoes and belts. They forced the men to take off their pants and underwear and do squats to make sure they weren't concealing money, jewelry or drugs in their rectums.
They probed the women's body cavities by hand.
One of the men put his gun to Marisol's temple. He looked directly into her eyes as he slipped his hand under her shirt and fondled her breasts on his way to checking if she was concealing money or jewelry. She says she didn't look away, not even when the man shoved his hand down her pants. She says she didn't try to hide the fear and anger in her eyes.
As he was about to slip his fingers inside her, his hand brushed against a panty liner inside her underwear.
"Are you on your period?" he asked, disgusted.
"Yes," she lied.
He yanked out his hand and moved on to his next victim. She was relieved that he didn't check her mouth and find the 14-karat-gold chain that her sister had given her for luck.
"Nothing like that had ever happened to me," Marisol said. "It's just horrible because you can't defend yourself. I just kept thinking, 'How can they do this to us? They know what will happen to us if we don't have money. How can they not have a soul?' "
Later, Marisol and the others encountered another band of robbers, but they had nothing left to give. They were searched — and violated — a second time and then allowed to continue.
The group finally reached the designated spot in the Arizona desert, where they waited for a van to drive them to Phoenix. Marisol and the others lay facedown on the summer-rain-soaked ground to avoid detection. Her aching body welcomed the two-hour rest. She didn't care about the mud or the flies and bugs that crawled on her.
The van arrived, stopping about half a mile away. They were told to run as fast as they could until they reached it. With all the energy they had left, Marisol and the others sprinted to the van and jumped in.
"We got to a house in south Phoenix, and they fed us," she recalled. "There were men guarding the door with guns. They kept us there until ... our families came with the money."
Her husband paid to free her and her brother. "People come [to the United States] out of necessity, but some here don't understand that," she said. "No one wants to travel back and forth to their native country like this. It feels like we're trapped. People think we're happy living this way. They're wrong."
The human-rights organization Coalición de Derechos Humanos reported that between October 1 and June 30, authorities recovered the bodies of 153 people in the Sonoran Desert. Though many bodies are believed to be those of border crossers who succumbed to extreme temperatures and the harsh terrain, medical examiners determined that five died of gunshot wounds and seven of blunt-force injuries. Sixty-seven bodies were so badly decomposed that the cause of death couldn't be determined.
Authorities don't know how many smuggling organizations operate in metro Phoenix. What they do know is that smugglers have brought violent crime to area cities — some of it in broad daylight.
"Life is cheap for these people," Phoenix police commander Brent Vermeer says of the kidnappers operating there.
Though the Phoenix area isn't like Mexico — where crime syndicates make fortunes kidnapping random powerful and rich people (or sometimes their children) and extorting their families — victims have been kidnapped there.
At about 3 a.m. on May 5, four men with handguns stormed a Phoenix-area home where U.S. citizens Estephany Saucedo, her infant child and her mentally challenged 22-year-old sister, Karley, were sleeping. The men demanded drugs and money.
Saucedo told them that they didn't have any drugs or cash. Investigators believe that the men were looking to collect on a drug debt, possibly for 1,300 pounds of marijuana that had been stolen from them. Saucedo's boyfriend had ties to the suspected thieves, but he had been in jail for more than a month on unrelated charges.
The intruders didn't care. One way or another, they would recover their losses. The gunmen decided to kidnap Saucedo, but she told them she had to take care of her baby. So they took Karley, who has the mental capacity of a 12-year-old. The kidnappers held her in a house, demanding $50,000 from her family.
The captors assaulted the woman and threatened to cut off her fingers if the money wasn't paid. After nine days, HIKE detectives found the dwelling, and on May 19, a SWAT team freed Karley.
When investigators encounter a case in which the victim has no discernible connection to smuggling — like the one involving Karley Saucedo — they're particularly concerned.
"A young Latino is kidnapped, and at first, you think, there must be some connection, but there isn't," says Phoenix police lieutenant Lauri Burgett, who adds that the victim is a U.S. citizen. "When I get cases like these, man, I think there are so many [kidnapping cases that] what's happening in Mexico is starting to happen here."
Federal immigration policies in the mid-1990s forced the stream of immigrants heading north into the United States to shift their routes to the Arizona desert when the feds fortified the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso with Operation Hold the Line, and in San Diego with Operation Gatekeeper.
The change intensified border security in California, and by 1997, the feds had doubled the number of border agents in San Diego, doubled California's border-security budget and increased the number of underground sensors to detect border crossers.
In Texas, fallen fences along the border were rebuilt, agents were stationed not just at established checkpoints but at popular spots for illegal crossing, and more overtime was authorized. Arrests at the Texas border dropped to fewer than 9,000 in 1994, down from 23,743 in 1992. Border Patrol agents in California arrested 531,689 immigrants along the San Diego County border in 1993; by 2002, that number had dropped to about 100,000.
During the same time, the feds approved Operation Safeguard to fortify the shared border between Arizona and Mexico. Government reports show that Arizona received an additional 100 border agents, $1 million to defray incarceration costs, and some equipment — including a couple of helicopters fitted with night-vision scopes and surveillance cameras. The investment in Arizona was much smaller than in Texas and California — and the results were different, too.
The federal plan was "intentionally driving people to Arizona and hoped that they would be deterred by the terrain," wrote Jeffrey Kaye, author of Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration.
Terrain was hardly a deterrent. More migrants came through Arizona because of the lax enforcement and because the rugged landscape offered great cover for smuggling. Also, the feds underestimated the determination of migrants in life-and-death struggles to better themselves and their families.
Gov. Jan Brewer and other Arizona politicians would like the nation to believe that average illegal immigrants are the driving force behind rampant violent crimes in Arizona. "The majority of the people who are coming to Arizona and trespassing are ... drug mules," Brewer has said.
She and others have no statistics, reports or evidence but perpetuate the notion that most illegal immigrants have direct links to drug cartels, work as drug mules or choose to come here to wallow in lives of crime and violence.
Yet, Arizona is not under attack from average illegal immigrants, who come here to find employment that is almost nonexistent in Mexico and most of Central America. In fact, it is the immigrants who are under attack — from Mexican cartels, from coyotes, from Arizona and from the U.S. federal government.
Russell Pearce, the state senator who authored Arizona Senate Bill 1070, has proclaimed that neighborhoods in the state will be safer when all undocumented immigrants are labeled by statute as criminals. His bill sought to help ensure that, but the heart of 1070 was stymied by U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton in a ruling that is certain to be appealed.
Law enforcement authorities, including Phoenix police chief Jack Harris, think 1070 will make it even harder for cops to do their jobs. Already, the victims of smugglers are reluctant to report crimes to police. If all of 1070 goes into effect, even more violent crime will occur under the radar of law enforcement.
Pearce argues that smuggling operations will be afraid to enter Phoenix if 1070 is enforced. But many cops say violent smugglers will in fact be able to carry on as usual because 1070 will force police departments to use resources going after law-abiding illegal aliens: maids, gardeners, tree-trimmers, restaurant workers.
Pearce insists that if Arizona makes itself as inhospitable to immigrants as possible, all but an insane few will stop coming to the United States illegally. What he and his allies ignore is that it's all but impossible for Mexicans and Central Americans to emigrate here legally.
U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes U.S. permanent-residency applications, is only now working on applications filed in 1994 by Mexican nationals seeking visas or green cards. These people, who followed the rules, have already waited 16 years.
That is too long for immigrants to endure when they need work to feed their families and are desperate to unite with loved ones in the United States, says Phoenix immigration attorney Jared Leung. "Whether it's parents wanting to be with children who were born here or parents bringing in children they left behind, no law is going to be strong enough to keep them apart," Leung says.
Federal law allows 26,260 people from Mexico to receive visas each year. There are more than 1.1 million Mexicans on a waiting list.