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Men Charged for Locking 16 Undocumented Immigrants in Nogales House

A tall border fence has long separated Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Mexico.EXPAND
A tall border fence has long separated Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Mexico.
Steven Hsieh
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Human smugglers locked over a dozen undocumented immigrants, including a child, in a room of a house in Nogales, Arizona, without access to a bathroom or running water last week, federal prosecutors allege in a new criminal complaint.

U.S. Border Patrol agents and officers with the Nogales Police Department found the 16 immigrants, one of whom was an "unaccompanied juvenile," locked in a room of a Nogales home. The door to the room had been locked with a large padlock. Large piles of trash were found in the room and the "stench of human waste and putrid food" was "significant." The migrants told law enforcement that the smugglers had seized their cellphones and IDs.

It's unclear how long the migrants were locked in the room or what happened to them after law enforcement found them. (Presumably, at least some of them were placed into deportation proceedings.) The Nogales Police Department did not respond to New Times' requests for comment regarding the case and their collaboration with Border Patrol. A spokesperson for Border Patrol also did not respond to questions.

Four men were charged on April 2 in the incident. Two of them, Hector Hugo Aviles-Armenta and Ramiro Alberto Medina-Castillo, are cousins and Mexican nationals who were in Nogales illegally to shuttle migrants to the stash house. The other two defendants, Enrique Ramos and Adrian Collalmo-Bernal, are U.S. citizens and were found at the stash house. Several of the them were allegedly paid for their role in transporting migrants to the home and keeping them there.

Law enforcement officials discovered the migrants through surveillance and a joint search of the house. On April 1, U.S. Border Patrol agents were monitoring the parking lot at the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Nogales, which is frequently used by human smugglers for "load ups and vehicle swaps," according to the complaint. They tailed a car that left the lot that they suspected of carrying migrants to a two-story home with boarded-up windows. The agents observed the same car, which was driven by Ramiro Alberto Medina-Castillo, leave the house without any passengers. They suspected that he had dropped off migrants at the house.

Hector Hugo Aviles-Armenta was also seen leaving the house in a different car by the agents. The complaint states that officers with the Nogales Police Department pulled him over for a traffic violation and that Border Patrol agents arrived on scene to question him about his immigration status, indicating that there was coordination between the two agencies.

After he was pulled over, Aviles-Armenta admitted to being undocumented and said that 11 migrants were inside the house.That's when the Nogales police officers and Border Patrol agents searched the home and found the migrants locked in the room.

Medina-Castillo told law enforcement that he had crossed the border illegally two days prior to his arrest was given instructions by people in Mexico to pick up migrants and drop them off at the stash house. (He was carrying the key to the padlocked door when he was arrested.) His cousin, Aviles-Arementa, said he had entered the U.S. roughly a month ago with the intent to transport migrants and that he was paid $200 for each person that he brought to the stash house. He said that his job was to pick up 40 to 50 migrants per week and bring them to the house.

Ramos, who is a U.S. citizen, said that he was paid $100 to $150 per week to "stay quiet" about the stash house and that he brought buckets of water to the house whenever they were requested.

Similar stash houses are frequently discovered in border towns and cities where human smugglers keep undocumented immigrants who recently crossed into the U.S. illegally. Migrants are often locked in cramped homes without food or water by smugglers until they are moved. Sometimes they or their families are extorted by smugglers, some of whom are themselves in debt to Mexican cartels, for money.

The phenomenon certainly isn't unheard of in Phoenix. Back in 2000, immigration officials told Phoenix New Times that there were hundreds of such stash houses in metro Phoenix. More recently, two men were charged in 2011 with human smuggling after a 53 undocumented immigrants were found at a stash house in Phoenix. 

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