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Seized: Inside the Brutal World of America's Kidnapping Capital

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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. 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.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo