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 white, chalky 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: They each paid the human smugglers about $1,800 to guide them safely through the treacherous Arizona desert.
Their guides instead delivered them to other, more vicious coyotes. The kidnappers demanded another $1,700 apiece for Maria and the 12 others, including two young boys.
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.
The smugglers stashed her along with the men 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 whitewashed 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 says 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 the 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 to 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.
Maria and the other captives 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 being 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 house.
Once the suburban prison was in their sights, they arranged for a SWAT team to raid the house, and they 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 a reporter 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, would eventually be granted temporary visas and released to their families.
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 primary 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 of the abductions were inside the smuggling world. In 2008, IIMPACT detectives worked 63 kidnapping cases, investigated 49 drop houses, and arrested 129 human smugglers.
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.
Yet, amid the ongoing rhetoric and raging emotions about illegal immigration, migrants like Maria continue to risk their lives to get here.
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 the ransom money probably would have ended 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 continues for as long as it takes to get the money, until hostages die from their injuries, or—in the rare instance—until the 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 were never 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 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. The gun still in his face, he squeezes his eyes shut. His lips are moving rapidly (there is no sound in 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 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 video-tape 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 says that he and other pollos were allowed to move freely around the initial house; they could even get food from a well-stocked refrigerator. 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 sent.
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.
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.
Inside the west Phoenix house where they took him, the kidnappers tied Andrade to a chair in a bloody closet, which had apparently 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. While his girlfriend listened on the phone at one point, they burned his back with cigarettes and a blowtorch. 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.
The attackers rained blows on him when he refused 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.
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 nearby. 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 a few miles away. 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 the 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.
On May 5, at about 3 a.m., four men with handguns stormed a home in the west Phoenix neighborhood of Maryvale, where U.S. citizens Estephany Sauceda, her infant child, and her mentally challenged 22-year-old sister, Karley, 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 Karley, who had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old. The kidnappers held Karley hostage in a South Phoenix house, 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.
When investigators encounter a case in which the victim has no discernible connection to smuggling—like the one involving Karley 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 as great as 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 feds] were intentionally driving people to Arizona and hoped that they would be deterred by the terrain," wrote Jeffrey Kaye, author of Moving Millions, How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration.
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 were already 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.
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 have no statistics, reports, or evidence, but perpetuate the notion that all illegal immigrants have direct links to drug cartels, work as drug mules, 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 the Arizona Senate Bill 1070, has proclaimed that neighborhoods in the state will be safer when all undocumented immigrants are labeled by the 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.
The Pearce-inspired statute, many cops say, will only make departments, particularly Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's, go after law-abiding illegal aliens (maids, gardeners, tree trimmers, restaurant workers) all the more, leaving violent smugglers to carry on as usual.
Despite what many law enforcement professionals profess, Pearce insists that if Arizona makes itself as inhospitable to immigrants as possible, all but an insane few will stop coming to the United States illegally.
Pearce shrieks 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. Citizen and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes U.S. permanent residency applications, is just now working on applications filed in 1994 by Mexican nationals seeking visas or green cards. These people who followed the rules have already waited 16 years.
Federal law allows 26,260 people from Mexico to receive visas each year. There are more than 1.1 million Mexicans on a waiting list.
Feeble attempts at reform have gone nowhere, or they have been met with fierce resistance. Consider the furor caused recently when a Republican 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 is attempting to grant amnesty to every illegal immigrant in the country. In reality, the suggestions in the memo ran along the lines of possibly allowing immigrants to attain legal status if their spouse, parents, or children are U.S. citizens serving in the military.
Even a proposal by 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—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 Phoenix immigration attorney Jared Leung believe.
"People are going to search for a way to feed their families, for work to support their families," he 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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.