Seized: Inside the Brutal World of America's Kidnapping Capital
Maria was drifting off to sleep on the bedroom floor. She could hear women getting raped in the next room. Only she didn't hear screams — she heard the laughter of male guards.
The women had been drugged by their rapists, who had done the same to Maria as soon as she walked into the house. They forced her to swallow a red liquid and handed her some chalky, white pills. She drank the liquid and tucked the pills on 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 other immigrants who had hired coyotes to smuggle them into the United States in May. 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 for Maria and the 12 others, including two young boys, they were holding.
The armed captors had tried to lock up Maria in the same room with 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.
Along with the men, the smugglers stashed her in the master bedroom.
When it was safe, she pulled the pills out of her mouth and gave them to her husband. He slipped them into the pocket of his white-washed 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, and a deadbolt on the door that 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 told New Times 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 making living wages is what drove Maria and the others to walk through the desert for eight days, crawl through tunnels, and move from camp to camp, car to car, and from one band of coyotes to another within the same smuggling operation. Money was also the motivation behind kidnappers' demands that Maria, her husband, and the other victims come up with large ransoms for their release.
The captives called their families back home, or relatives in Arizona, to plead 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 captives and dump their dead bodies in the desert if the money didn't show up.
Terrified and confused, Maria was allowed to leave the room only when it was her turn to help cook for the guards or clean the house. One of the other women told Maria that they had been in the house for more than a month. 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.
While Maria and the other captives played a macabre version of house, they had no idea that a specialized 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 held. The tip was passed on to members of a police task force called IIMPACT (Illegal Immigration Prevention Apprehension Co-op Team). The countywide effort to dismantle smuggling rings, arrest violent criminals, and rescue hostages includes detectives from the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Phoenix Police Department and agents from ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
Investigators spent three days deciphering the tipster's information before finally pinpointing the location of the house.
Once the suburban prison was in their sights, they arranged for a SWAT team to raid the house, arrested four suspected kidnappers, and rescued the hostages, including Maria.
"The looks on their faces — they just lit up," Phoenix police Sergeant Harry Reiter, who supervises IIMPACT detectives, says of the rescued hostages. "They were so grateful. They didn't care that [they would have to] go back south of the border — they just wanted out of the kidnappers' hold."
Although removed from the coyotes' clutches, the pollos were hardly set free. They 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 questions inside a small cubicle. Her voice was barely audible, and she stared at the floor. Her answers were void of detail, but the detective extracted information from her to build a case against the coyotes. They spoke in Spanish as New Times 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.
Detectives worked well into the evening interviewing and fingerprinting the pollos. 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. At the end of the night, they were locked up again, this time in a holding tank where they awaited deportation.
Phoenix is labeled the kidnapping capital of the United States because of people- and drug-smuggling out of Mexico. It's a catchphrase that politicians like U.S. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona 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 overwhelmingly are the victims.
In 2008, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, there were 368 reported kidnappings 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. That smattering is reported by victims who escaped, from families desperate to free their loved ones, or by anonymous tips — such as the one that led investigators to the house where Maria and her husband were held.
In the absence of federal immigration reform, experts believe that immigrants will continue to risk their lives and rely on coyotes as they search for better lives in this country. 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. That means that a country like Mexico, where more than 1 million people have applications pending, has the same quota as Belgium. Also, on paper, federal authorities say one of the goals of immigration policy is to reunite families by admitting immigrants with relatives in the United States, but deep backlogs mean that it can take 20 years or longer for immigration officials to review an application for a green card.
Meanwhile, rhetoric and raging emotion about illegal immigration continue.
As for the IIMAPCT detectives who find and save some victims like Maria, they don't consider themselves immigration officers.
"Our goal is not to enforce [immigration laws], but to get violent criminals off our streets," says Sergeant Reiter, not mentioning that every undocumented victim IIMAPCT encounters winds up in ICE custody.
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, those whose families didn't come up with ransom money probably would've wound up there.
Guards inside such places employ a brutal style of persuasion.
They're known to beat and torture victims while family members listen on the telephone. The torment can continue for as long as it takes to get the money, until hostages die from their injuries, or — in the rare instance — until police burst in and free them.
Investigators wanted desperately to find that house, but the smugglers had taken pains to 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 at the violence house briefly on their way to the dwelling where IIMPACT had found them, but they were covered in the back of the van, so she couldn't discern the exact location of the torture chamber. Detectives tried to piece together scant details from victims. One pollo told investigators that they had traveled about 10 minutes between the two houses. Another said it was only five. The cops never were able to find the place.
Tracking down violence houses is a priority for IIMPACT officers, who have seen firsthand the chilling brutality that happens inside them.
A cell-phone video that investigators confiscated from one such drop house and allowed New Times 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. With 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.
"We see some of the most violent people in the country," says IIMPACT's Reiter. "Obviously, the violence on the border is directly related to what happens here."
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 torture 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 told New Times that he and other pollos were allowed to move freely around the initial house; they even could get food from a well-stocked refrigerator. There weren't any weapons brandished, any threats against their lives. Even so, the guards watched them closely and didn't let them forget that they were prisoners. The guards 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 get extra cash wired.
Sometimes, pollos are kidnapped at gunpoint by 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 servants in a smuggling organization.
Violence houses are the last stops for most pollos. But they are the first stops for bajadores captured by the coyotes they've robbed, and for rival human and drug smugglers believed to have access to large sums of cash. The torture is especially fierce for these competitors.
The violence houses are evidence that although violent crimes have decreased in Arizona and across the country, they continue 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. They have seen a handful of troubling local cases in which 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 has siphoned through Arizona more and more over the past 15 years. The increase stems, in part, from border-security initiatives that pinched 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 for nearly $2,000 each became a profitable venture, almost as lucrative as running drugs or weapons across the U.S.-Mexico border. Drug cartels joined forces with human smugglers in Mexico or branched out to include humans as part of their own cargoes. With the promise of making even more money, coyotes paid to guide their victims to a better life turned into kidnappers.
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, 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, opened 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.
"The complexity of it [is] crazy," says Phoenix police Lieutenant Lauri Burgett, who oversees investigators assigned to the Phoenix Police Department's specialized anti-smuggling unit HIKE (Home Invasion and Kidnapping Enforcement), created two years ago.
For the organized criminals working in human smuggling, violence and torture are just business as usual. And, with the U.S. government's failed immigration policy that offers no real solution to the illegal-immigration crisis, business is booming.
When Bartolo Flores got off at the bus station in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican border town just south of Douglas, he was approached by several would-be coyotes, each promising the safest, cheapest, shortest, and easiest path to the United States.
Such trips are rarely as advertised.
Flores, who had traveled more than a day from Mexico City, chose a guide and was led to a hotel, where he was locked inside a room for four days. He was eager to find work in Phoenix to support the wife and children he had left behind. Flores waited with other pollos until the guides were ready to begin their trek across the border into Arizona in 2006.
"We had to crawl through a tunnel and ended up in an abandoned house," Flores tells New Times. "The same coyotes pulled out butcher knives — the kind you use to kill a pig. I was so afraid. They robbed me, and I ran. I thought I was going to die, but you can't tell the police."
He ended up back in Mexico, but he risked the journey again with a different coyote, who told him it would cost $1,200 to get to Phoenix. When he arrived, that fee turned into $1,500. He paid it and was released.
"They don't have any morals," Flores says. "All they care about is money."
South of the border, the men pitching smuggling services at such places as bus stops in border towns are the first links in a complex human-smuggling chain.
Known by authorities as "border organizers," 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 provide a specific service — such as operating a string of drop houses where cargo can be locked up.
Car thieves play a key role in the underworld of human smuggling. They are paid to steal heavy-duty trucks or vans from Phoenix-area streets, stock them with supplies, and camouflage them in the desert. Coyotes use the vehicles to move immigrants to drop houses hidden in plain sight in neighborhoods across the metro area. Others hired to drive these vehicles can earn $50 to $100 for each illegal immigrant they ferry to a destination.
As they sneak across the Sonoran Desert, coyotes take their cues from spotters in the mountains armed with weapons, high-powered 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 in the vast desert expanse to ensure uninterrupted communication.
Once in the Phoenix area, coyotes pull up to the drop houses, usually under the cover of night, 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 get paid for each person they watch and sometimes are dispatched to collect ransoms.
Some drop houses are actual homes, with families living in them. Guards are sometimes mothers raising children next to the locked rooms where hostages are imprisoned.
Detectives investigating a call last July, about kidnappers threatening to decapitate a man if his family did not pay $3,000, stumbled upon a drop house belonging to a Latina working for smugglers. Her daughter was a member of the pack of coyotes who stashed their victims at her house. HIKE's Lieutenant Burgett recalled another drop house where a 12-year-old boy was taking a piano lesson in the living room while immigrants were held for ransom in a bedroom.
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 re-kidnap hostages. They also often attack immigrants walking across the Arizona desert.
Marisol and her brother had just buried their mother in Mexico. 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 a group of about 30 other people.
She tells New Times that she prayed that day in 1998 that she would make it back safely to her two children and husband. She and her brother eventually did, but not before they were accosted in the desert by eight gunmen wearing military clothes and ski masks.
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 were 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 of her, his hand brushed against a panty liner inside her underwear.
"Are you on your period?" he asked, disgusted.
"Yes," she quickly lied, hoping that he would believe her.
She says he then 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 relates. "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 hand over. They were searched — and violated — a second time, and then allowed to continue their trek.
The group finally reached the designated spot in the Arizona desert where they waited for a van to arrive and drive them to Phoenix. To avoid detection by border agents, Marisol and the others were told to lie face down on the summer-rain-soaked ground. 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 a half-mile away. They were told to run as fast as they could until they reached it — and that stragglers would pay dearly. With all the energy they had left, Marisol and the others sprinted to the van and jumped in. The driver then calmly drove north.
"We got to a house in south Phoenix, and they fed us," she recalls. "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. For weeks after she had returned to her life in America, nightmares of the ordeal besieged her.
"People come [to the United States] out of necessity, but some here don't understand that," she says. "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 kidnappings and robberies suffered by Marisol and others are cogs in an underground machine that races along because of the unending demand for passage into United States.
Investigators worry that the smugglers' level of brutality in this country will someday mirror horrific acts of violence in Mexican cities like Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, and Mexico City. Warring drug cartels in Mexico have decapitated victims and assassinated rivals, politicians, and police officers. Competitors' heads have been hanged in public squares.
But the methods of the criminal syndicates operating in metro Phoenix are nearly as demented — and the brutality is effective at getting families to pay. Those who don't or can't pay may never see their relatives again. Many pollos simply disappear, and their families, fearful of la migra, never make law enforcement the wiser.
The human-rights organization Coalición de Derechos Humanos reported that between October 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010, 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 of the individuals died of gunshot wounds to their heads or bodies, and seven succumbed to blunt-force injuries. Sixty-seven bodies were so badly decomposed that it couldn't be determined how they died.
In 2008, seven bodies were found dumped in the desert west of Phoenix. One victim was discovered in Avondale with his hands tied behind his back and a gunshot wound to the back of his head. Between March and October 2002, police found eight bodies north of Buckeye. All of the victims had their hands bound behind their backs, bodies peppered with bullets.
With most of the killings unsolved, police can only surmise that the corpses were the work of smugglers.
The players in human-smuggling syndicates are predominantly Mexican nationals working both sides of the border, but investigators have discovered examples of white U.S. citizens (who, coyotes know, appear much less suspicious to police) involved in the trade.
It was mid-morning on April 1 when a state trooper pulled over Brook Ashley Sieckman, a 34-year-old, white California woman, on a traffic violation. She was driving a Chevy Suburban west on Interstate 10 through Buckeye. Because it was discovered that she also had a suspended driver's license, Arizona law requires that her vehicle be impounded for 30 days.
As the DPS officer took inventory of Sieckman's personal items in the car, he found four men and a woman hidden beneath blankets. The immigrants were turned over to ICE, and Sieckman was arrested and jailed on suspicion of human smuggling.
Authorities don't know how many smuggling organizations operate in metro Phoenix, much less how many deal simultaneously in moving people, drugs, and guns. 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 here.
In April, Roman Mendez drove to Arizona from his home in California to pay coyotes to release four of his relatives who had arrived from Mexico the previous day. The exchange was made at a Denny's restaurant near I-10 and Baseline Road in Tempe. As Mendez drove away with his family members, the coyotes who delivered the hostages called a cohort to tell him that the family had paid the entire smuggling fee within hours.
They smelled an opportunity for a bigger payout.
Still on the road minutes later, Mendez's car was overtaken in Phoenix and cut off by a car containing the same coyotes who had just let his family go. Armed men jumped out, and one of them ripped Mendez from the driver's seat. They then drove off in his vehicle with his family again in their custody. Soon, a phone call came from a man demanding even more money.
Reluctantly, Mendez alerted police. After HIKE detectives worked the case for three days, they were able to rescue the hostages and arrest the kidnappers. The hostages were questioned and turned over to ICE, and the coyotes were held for prosecution.
The lust for a bigger payout makes Valley residents who freelance for smuggling operations especially vulnerable. Competitors see these part-time coyotes as a pipeline to cash.
Jaime Andrade had a regular job as a mechanic but sometimes dabbled in human smuggling, earning $100 apiece to find recently smuggled immigrants a place to work and live. In April 2006, two men dragged him out of his Phoenix home after one of them hit him over the head with a baseball bat. The kidnappers attacked him in front of his girlfriend, Ariel Ocegueda, and their children, and demanded that Ocegueda tell them where Andrade kept his money.
There was no money, she told them. But they weren't convinced and demanded $50,000. After the kidnappers left with Andrade, in desperation, Ocegueda called Phoenix police, despite the abductors' threats that she had better not report them.
Inside the west Phoenix house where they took him, the kidnappers tied Andrade to a chair in a bloody closet, which apparently had been used to torture previous victims. He could hear screams as kidnappers unleashed horrific attacks on hostages locked up in other rooms. Like them, Andrade endured ferocious assaults. At one point, they burned his back with cigarettes and a blowtorch while his girlfriend listened on the phone. They stabbed his hand, cut his ears and fingers with scissors, attempted to rip his eye out of its socket, and split open his eyebrow.
Then, they ordered him to bend over.
When he refused, the attackers rained blows on him and forced his legs apart. Andrade's blood-curdling screams elicited no mercy from the men as they rammed him with a broomstick, a pair of scissors, and a thick wooden dowel, shredding his colon. Andrade endured four days of such torture before police were able to track down the kidnappers and rescue him.
Andrade recovered and was allowed to stay in the United States to testify against one of his tormentors, now serving a 54-year prison sentence in Arizona.
In another case, a 32-year-old migrant was kidnapped last October by two gunmen who demanded $100,000 from his family. Police believe the victim was involved with smugglers, which explains why his family never reported his abduction.
For more than a week, he was locked inside the bedroom of a Phoenix home without food or water. He overheard his captors say they were tired of waiting for the ransom. They said they were going to bury him alive in a makeshift grave inside the house. Using a concrete saw, the captors cut through the foundation and dug a six-foot grave inside a bedroom. While the captors tore through the ground, the hostage managed to free himself through a window. He ran down the street to a nearby house, called police, and the kidnappers were soon arrested by HIKE detectives.
Though he escaped death at the hands of smugglers the first time, he may not have been so lucky after his deportation. He was found murdered a week later in Mexico.
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 — innocent victims have been kidnapped locally.
An illegal immigrant, who had lived in Phoenix for about 10 years, had just stepped off a bus. It was a hot August day last year, and he was walking to his home near 32nd Street and Camelback Road. A van pulled up beside him, and men with guns jumped out and forced him inside the vehicle. They sped away to a drop house near 24th Street and McDowell Road. The man was locked up for four days before his family was able to scrounge together the $2,800 ransom. Once they paid it, he was freed.
The man went to police and led IIMPACT detectives to the house where he had been held. Police later learned that the victim was grabbed off the street because one of 11 undocumented immigrants whom the kidnappers were holding hostage had escaped. They had to replace the escapee or pay their boss the ransom out of their own pockets.
Cops arrested two suspects and rescued 10 pollos. They turned over the hostages — including the random kidnapping victim who had led them to the drop house — to federal immigration agents.
About 3 a.m. on May 5, four men with handguns stormed a Maryvale home where U.S. citizens Estephany Sauceda, her infant child, and her mentally challenged 22-year-old sister, Karely, were sleeping. The men demanded drugs and money, saying they were looking for "the man with the white car." Sauceda 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. Sauceda'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 Sauceda, but she told them she had to take care of her baby. So they took Karely, who has the mental capacity of a 12-year-old. The kidnappers held Karely hostage in a house at 48th Street and Baseline Road, demanding $50,000 from her family.
The captors assaulted the girl 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 burst in and freed Karley.
Most kidnapping victims in the Phoenix area aren't involved in the drug trade — they simply are trying to get here to find work. But when they are involved, police have a harder time saving them.
On March 13, migrant Jose de Jesus Garcias Florez was in Glendale working at a landscaping job when he was kidnapped by two men. He was a day laborer, but on the side, he drove cars used in drug-smuggling operations to and from Mexico. The following day, he called a friend and asked for help paying his ransom. During several calls to the friend, the kidnappers said they would harm Garcias Florez if the ransom went unpaid. Unable to come up with the money, the friend called police on March 15.
By the time investigators figured out where he was, it was too late.
Garcias Florez made his last call pleading for money about 7:30 p.m. on March 15. Less than three hours later, his body was found on the floor of a mobile home in west Phoenix. His body — hands and feet bound in duct tape — was covered by a blanket. Police said he was suffocated by his captors.
The following day, police arrested two men in the murder. They discovered that Garcias Florez had known his kidnappers; they all had come to the United States together from Mexico. One suspect told police that Garcias Florez had hired one of the kidnappers to sell drugs but had fired him because he was using too much meth. Out of money and desperate for a fix, the unemployed drug dealer hatched a plan to hire a crew to kidnap Garcias Florez and extort him for money.
The potential for violence and even death is an "accepted risk" for smugglers, HIKE's Burgett says.
When investigators encounter a case in which the victim has no discernible connection to smuggling — like the one involving Karely Sauceda — they're particularly concerned.
"A young Latino is kidnapped, and at first, you think, there must be some connection, but there isn't. [He or she's] a U.S. citizen," Burgett says.
"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."
Despite the potential for violence, immigrants searching for a better existence are lured by coyotes because the risk they face with them isn't greater than the risk of attempting to traverse the treacherous Sonoran Desert alone.
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 initiative intensified border security in California, and by 1997, the feds had doubled the number of border agents in San Diego, doubled that state'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 dropped to about 100,000.
During that 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 much smaller investment yielded a far different result than the California and Texas operations.
"[The feds] were intentionally driving people to Arizona and hoped that they would be deterred by the terrain," Jeffrey Kaye, author of Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration, tells New Times.
The terrain hardly was a deterrent. More migrants funneled into the country through Arizona because of the lax enforcement and because the rugged landscape offered great cover for smuggling caravans. Also, the feds underestimated the determination of migrants in life-and-death struggles to better themselves and their families.
Though many died in the brutal Sonoran heat or from ill treatment by smugglers, throngs of immigrants made it to Phoenix — which became the hub for migrants who not only wanted to stay in Arizona or go to the populous Los Angeles area, but for those who planned to fan out all over the country.
Backing up to 1994, a year after Texas ramped up its border security, agents in Nogales arrested 137,407 people trying to sneak into Arizona — 66 percent more than the previous year.
The increased number of immigrants coming into the state naturally created a burgeoning market for coyotes. As time passed, smuggling operations became more sophisticated and prices for passage went up.
Cartels that already were moving drugs and weapons across the border expanded their trade to include humans.
They charged human smugglers "taxes" to use their routes across the border. Or they contracted with human-smuggling rings to move loads of pollos collected from border towns.
And the style of violence that is common in parts of Mexico — where people are gruesomely murdered in broad daylight in public squares — started to seep across the border into Arizona.
Governor Jan Brewer, among other Arizona politicians, would like the nation to believe that average illegal immigrants are the driving force behind rampant violent crimes in Arizona.
During a televised gubernatorial debate, Brewer said, "The majority of the people that are coming to Arizona and trespassing are ... drug mules."
She and others who parrot that myth have no statistics, reports, or evidence, but they perpetuate the notion that all illegal immigrants have direct links to drug cartels or choose to come here to wallow in lives of crime and violence.
Yet Arizona isn't under attack from average illegal immigrants, who come here to find employment that is virtually 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 federal government.
Russell Pearce, the state senator who authored 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.
Besides, 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 operate under the radar of law enforcement.
Senator Pearce argues that smuggling operations will be afraid to come into Phoenix with 1070, but what do they have to fear when they have been able to elude police so effectively? The Pearce-inspired statute, many cops say, will only make departments, particularly Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's, go after law-abiding illegal aliens (housekeepers, gardeners, tree-trimmers, restaurant workers) all the more, leaving violent smugglers to carry on as usual.
Despite what many law-enforcement professionals profess, Pearce says if Arizona makes itself as inhospitable to immigrants as possible, all but an insane few will stop coming to the United States illegally.
Pearce insists that anybody who wants to come here must do so through legal channels.
What he and other zealots ignore is that it's virtually impossible for Mexicans and Central Americans to emigrate here legally.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes U.S. permanent-residency requests, is just now working on applications filed in 1994 by Mexican nationals seeking visas or green cards. These people who followed the rules already have waited 16 years.
This is too long for immigrants to endure, according to Phoenix immigration attorney Jared Leung, when they need employment to feed their families or are desperate to reunite with loved ones already here.
"Everyone is for family unity, whether you are pro-immigration or anti-immigration. It is our nature to want to be with our families," says Leung. "But for some people, getting family unity [means] almost a 20-year wait.
"Whether it's parents wanting to be with children who were born here, or parents bringing in children they left behind," Leung says, "no law is going to be strong enough to keep them apart."
Federal law allows 26,260 people from Mexico to receive visas each year. There are roughly 1.1 million Mexicans on a waiting list.
An application process to become a legal U.S. resident that can take two decades to get processed, Leung argues, isn't a practical alternative to hiring a coyote. He says the federal government has created no incentive for immigrants to follow the rules.
Feeble attempts at reform have gone nowhere, or they have been met with fierce resistance. Consider the furor caused recently when a Republican U.S. senator released a White House internal memo outlining some administrative actions available to the president to address immigration issues now, instead of waiting for comprehensive reform to make it through Congress.
It had conservative groups and politicos up in arms, claiming President Barack Obama was attempting to grant amnesty to every illegal immigrant in the country. In reality, the suggestions in the memo ran along the lines of allowing immigrants to attain legal status if their spouse, parents, or children are U.S. citizens serving in the military.
Even a proposal by U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-New York) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) that was hailed as a bipartisan approach to comprehensive immigration reform hasn't gone anywhere. It proposed some solutions that include creating a process for admitting temporary workers, plus what the senators called a "tough but fair path to legalization for those already here."
Until changes are made at a federal level — and not with a patchwork of rules that merely shift illegal immigrants from state to state — the opportunities that the United States offers immigrants will be too strong a force for border agents to overcome, critics of U.S. border policy like Jared Leung believe.
"People are going to search for a way to feed their families, for work to support their families," Leung says.
"A poor father from Guatemala will find a way to support his family. If he has to choose between breaking the law and putting food on the table, he's going to put food on the table. Any father would choose to put food on the table."
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