By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
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 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.
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.
"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?' " Marisol says.
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 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—whom coyotes know are 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, west of Phoenix. Because it was discovered that she also had a suspended driver's license, Arizona law required that her vehicle be impounded for 30 days.
As the 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.
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 in the town of 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.