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

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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 pollos are in the coyotes' grasp, both captive and captor must be wary of the bajadores, who sometimes burst into homes using homemade battering rams to re-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 told New Times that she prayed that day in 1998 that 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 were 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.

"Nothing like that had ever happened to me," Marisol told New Times. "It's just horrible because you can't defend yourself. 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?'"

Later, Marisol and the others encountered another band of robbers, but they had nothing left to hand over. They were searched — and violated — a second time and then allowed to continue their trek.

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 recalled. "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 told New Times. "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 kidnappings and robberies suffered by Marisol and others are cogs in an underground machine that races along because of the unending demand for passage into United States.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo