By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
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, they are often 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 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.
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 just 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.
South of the border, the men pitching smuggling services at such places as bus stops in border towns are the first links in a com- plex 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.
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.
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 that pollos are in 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.
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 says that she prayed 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.