Immigrant Smugglers Become More Ruthless
Tactics Changing in Face of Federal Crackdown
By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2004; Page A03
LOS ANGELES -- No one was going anywhere until the smugglers got their money.
They had led the group of illegal immigrants across desolate desert, sneaked them over the border, then packed them in vans and drove hundreds of miles to a hideaway here. What came next was not supposed to be part of the passage.
"The first thing they did was take all their shoes," said Jessica Dominquez, a local immigration lawyer. "Then they were all locked up, with no way to get out."
Some of the immigrants spent days trapped inside a shack in the San Fernando Valley, waiting for relatives to pay fees higher than they had expected. When police acting on a tip raided the place last month, they found about 80 immigrants packed shoulder-to-shoulder in darkness and filth.
It was a house of horrors they are becoming accustomed to seeing.
From Southern California to Texas, as a federal crackdown against illicit crossings intensifies along the nation's southwestern border, smugglers are taking ruthless new steps to exploit the multitude of poor immigrants from Mexico and Central America trying to reach the United States at any cost.
In the past few months around Los Angeles, authorities have discovered more than 650 illegal immigrants being held captive by smuggling rings -- inside trucks and motel rooms, in squalid bungalows without electricity, even at a brothel where they were being forced to perform sex acts for their freedom.
Around Phoenix, more than 200 suspected smugglers have been apprehended since last fall. Authorities have seized about 110 weapons and more than $5 million in cash from them.
Human smuggling has become such a large, lucrative enterprise that other criminal gangs are muscling into the market by ambushing smugglers once they cross the border, kidnapping the immigrants and then charging higher prices for their release. Earlier this year, a gang in Los Angeles even planted one of its members in a group crossing over from Mexico and then hijacked the smuggling operation.
"It's getting worse," said Greg Simons, a director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "We have people telling us that their loved ones are being held ransom and asking, 'What do we do?' It's ridiculous."
The latest smuggling ring uncovered here illustrates the new extremes of the problem, federal officials said. Seven smugglers were caught last month holding nearly 80 illegal immigrants captive inside a dilapidated 1,200-square-foot house whose windows were covered by iron bars or chicken wire.
According to court documents filed in the case, many of the immigrants were from Guatemala and had paid the smugglers at least $3,000 apiece. Their harrowing journey to Los Angeles had taken two weeks.
Many were bound for the East Coast. But they were being held hostage while the smugglers pressured their families for more money. The immigrants told federal agents they were not allowed to sleep or use the bathroom without the permission of the smuggling ring's leader, whom they called "El Diablo," or the devil.
Investigators said they found ledger books with names of hundreds of illegal immigrants who had been held against their will inside the house in recent months, along with cell phones and forms to transfer money by wire.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company