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

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With so much money changing hands, other criminals — both U.S. and Mexican citizens — have been lured into the trade. Some work for a human-smuggling ring by renting and operating drop houses where pollos can be stashed. Others work as guards in these houses or transport immigrants or work as watchmen along the border to help the coyotes evade U.S. Border Patrol agents.

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 unite HIKE (Home Invasion and Kidnapping Enforcement), created 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.

When Bartolo Flores got off at the bus station in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican border town just south of Douglas, he was approached by several would-be coyotes, each promising the safest, cheapest, shortest, and easiest path to the United States.

Such trips are rarely as advertised.

Flores, who had traveled more than a day from Mexico City, chose a guide and was led to a hotel, where he was locked inside a room for four days. He was eager to find work in Phoenix to support the wife and children he had left behind. Flores waited with other pollos until the guides were ready to begin their trek across the border into Arizona in 2006.

"We had to crawl through a tunnel and ended up in an abandoned house," Flores tells New Times. "The same coyotes pulled out butcher knives — the kind you use to kill a pig. I was so afraid. They robbed me, and I ran. I thought I was going to die, but you can't tell the police."

He ended up back in Mexico, but he risked the journey again with a different coyote, who told him it would cost $1,200 to get to Phoenix. When he arrived, that fee turned into $1,500. He paid it and was released.

"They don't have any morals," Flores says. "All they care about is money."

South of the border, the men pitching smuggling services at such places as bus stops in border towns are the first links in a complex 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.

As they sneak across the Sonoran Desert, coyotes take their cues from spotters in the mountains armed with weapons, high-powered surveillance equipment, and cell phones or two-way radios. They warn coyotes below about the movement of Border Patrol agents. Leaders in these organized-crime operations even hire technicians to erect cell-phone towers in the vast desert expanse to ensure uninterrupted communication.

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. These guards play different roles in the smuggling operations. Some make sure pollos don't escape, while others dole out threats and beatings. Guards generally get paid for each person they watch and sometimes are dispatched to collect ransoms.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo