Phoenix or Busted

The Valley is now the prime way station for ruthless smugglers engaged in the lucrative trafficking of human cargo -- illegal immigrants

"We've seen evidence some of the coyotes are starting to network and organize, but 80 percent of them work in helter-skelter crews," says Jankowski.

"Lately what we're seeing is groups who specialize in getting loads of aliens over the border and to Phoenix, then act as brokers, auctioning them off to other smuggling groups, who bid on them, like, 'I'll take 10 who want to go to L.A.,' or, 'Give me three going to Arkansas' . . . then they'll stash them in houses all over the Valley until everyone's paid up and the final arrangements are made."

On March 16, acting on a tip from Mesa police, the INS raided a stash house holding 140 undocumented immigrants, a new Valley record.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent unloads one of the more than 1,000 UDAs (undocumented aliens) captured every day near the Arizona border.
Paolo Vescia
A U.S. Border Patrol agent unloads one of the more than 1,000 UDAs (undocumented aliens) captured every day near the Arizona border.
A Border Patrol agent eyes the wasteland on the U.S. side of the border. The metal grating protects him from rocks and bottles hurled through and over the fence.
Paolo Vescia
A Border Patrol agent eyes the wasteland on the U.S. side of the border. The metal grating protects him from rocks and bottles hurled through and over the fence.

One week later, the INS netted 42 Mexicans in a Phoenix house near 24th Street and McDowell after a person inside dialed 911, then hung up. The day of that bust, a widow who has lived next door since 1951 said she had baked cookies for all the different children she'd seen playing outside the house lately.

"They called me 'The Cookie Lady,'" she said. "Then today they had them all lined up against the wall. It was sad."

Henry Woodrum, assistant district director of investigations for the Phoenix INS, says his office receives more than 100 tips a month related to smuggling rings and stash houses.

Residents of the historic neighborhood around the stash house with the jigsaw puzzle suspect the nature of this 1930s Tudor home, which has blankets covering the windows and where taxis and vans come and go in the dead of night. But the neighbors literally look the other way, either because they or their relatives once crossed the Mexican border themselves, or because they're sympathetic, or just because the stash house's fleeting residents don't cause any trouble as would, say, the customers of a crack house.

Not all Phoenix residents take such magnanimous views. West Phoenix community activist Donna Neil, leader of NAILEM, a neighborhood advocacy group that pressures legislators to streamline the process for prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants, says stash houses in her area create an atmosphere of fear.

"I think it's [the problem] as simple as flushing the toilet when you have 35 to 40 people in one place and as complicated as the fear level of the community. The unsafe feeling," says Neil.

"You know, when you have folks coming in in the middle of the night to the house next door to you -- where you know illegal activity is taking place, and it is illegal -- it's a very uncomfortable feeling for communities."

In the central Phoenix stash house that's only a stroll away from City Hall, the men around the map say a coyote who sits in a metal folding chair outside the front door collects money to buy tacos at Jack in the Box. The tacos, they agree, are not very good, but at two for a buck they're cheap protein.

The men say that while the coyote is on his fast-food run, he also makes the rounds of four money-wiring businesses in the neighborhood, returning with news of whose payment has arrived and who is still a captive. Because bandits are common along the border, the illegals carry little cash when they cross. They have relatives wire the money owed to the coyotes once they arrive at a stash house in Phoenix.

"One of the main human rights problems we have is the struggle with the coyotes," says Salvador Cassian, the Mexican consul general in Phoenix. "They hold people for several days in small houses in very precarious conditions. Sometimes 100 to 150 people, men and women and boys and girls all together. This is one of the worst conditions for these people to be in when they arrive in Phoenix."

INS, local human rights activists and the Mexican diplomat may say the coyote stash houses are dens of abuse, but the immigrant holding Kansas in his hand has no serious complaints about his temporary lodging. There is no shower, he says, but at least the toilet works. There is water to drink and Jack in the Box to eat. He wishes there were a television set, but since he's paid up, he leaves tonight.

This house is nothing compared to the last place he waited, the man says. He draws a crude map of Mexico in the carpet with his finger, aligning its border with the jigsaw puzzle of America.

He points to where he's from, a town in southern Mexico, between Guadalajara and Aguascalientes, then traces his bus route from there to the coast along the Gulf of California, up to the major city of Hermosillo, Sonora, then north to Agua Prieta, the border town facing Douglas, Arizona. He stabs his finger at the sister cities and says it took him nine days to make it over the border from Agua Prieta.

"Only then, during the waiting, did I begin to lose hope."

Twenty-year-old Jorge Colosio (a pseudonym) sits alone on the concrete stoop of the Hotel Yolanda, Agua Prieta's most popular hostel, four blocks from the border. Nestled between his feet is a black knapsack that bears an acrylic painting of Kurt Cobain. Nirvana plays Colosio's favorite music, next to Guns n' Roses.

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