Ransom Demand Puts Undocumented Residents in a Quandary

Ulises Martinez of Alexandria got a ransom demand for his in-laws, coming to meet his son, Alexis.
Ulises Martinez of Alexandria got a ransom demand for his in-laws, coming to meet his son, Alexis. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Josh White and Dagny Salas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ulises Martinez received the first call on a cold January morning, a stern voice shocking him through his cellphone. His in-laws had been taken hostage after a grueling border crossing from the Mexican desert into Arizona. Martinez would have to pay $3,000 to secure their release.

"I am not responsible for what will happen to them if you do not pay the money," the voice said. He would dismember the in-laws and dump them in the desert if Martinez didn't pay up. It was $3,000 Martinez, a 40-year-old Alexandria mechanic with a wife and toddler, didn't have and couldn't get.

As demands quickly increased to $5,400, Martinez's in-laws cowered in their underwear in a dark, squalid room in Phoenix and were told that their fingers would be cut off and their organs harvested if the cartel's demands weren't met.

Desperate and confused, Martinez, himself an undocumented immigrant, called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Washington area, touching off an intense federal investigation. It was one of dozens of such search-and-rescue missions spurred by similar menacing calls over the past year, and one of two cases in Northern Virginia in recent months.

As U.S. control of the border has strengthened since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it has become harder for people to cross illegally. That has spawned a boom in hostage-taking as smuggling cartels have realized that they can extort money from illegal immigrants' families in the United States, many of whom wire the ransom instead of risking their own deportation by contacting police.

Although the cartels hold captives in the southwest border states, the crimes have reached into the Washington region, where established immigrant communities include undocumented people who left their families behind in Central America. The kidnappers prey on working-class, Spanish-speaking immigrants because they are especially vulnerable: They would do almost anything to free their loved ones, and they are sometimes equally fearful of U.S. authorities.

Two recent cases, involving victims who received extortion calls in Alexandria and Prince William County, highlight how reporting such crimes can lead to daring rescues. ICE officials and local police hope the cases encourage others receiving extortion calls to come forward, both to save lives and to help them make inroads into the sprawling criminal organizations.

"Nobody deserves to be held against their will, regardless of their immigration status," said James Dinkins, special agent in charge of ICE investigations in the District and Virginia. "Nobody deserves to be abused or tortured or to have their life threatened. . . . The hostage takers must think the loved ones aren't going to call the cops."

The extortion demands -- which also have been reported in places including Washington state, California, Illinois and Florida -- have led ICE agents to work with victims to record and trace the calls. Officials estimate that more than 1,000 captives have been rescued in raids after victims such as Martinez come forward. But ICE officials say countless other kidnappings have gone unreported as victims quietly pay millions of dollars in ransom.

'They Sold Us Like Chickens'

Hostage rescues have become almost a weekly occurrence on the southern U.S. border, according to ICE officials and police. ICE agents have been discovering an increasing number of "drop houses" in Arizona and Texas linked to complex human smuggling operations that they say are similar to violent Mexican drug and weapons cartels.

"Human smugglers think nothing of engaging in hostage taking and extortion to generate more profit for their illegal activities," said John Morton, Homeland Security assistant secretary for ICE.

Even Martinez, as desperate as he was, never intended to call ICE. He called an immigration advocacy group, which passed along a phone number that turned out to be ICE. Ultimately, he realized it might be the only way to save his wife's parents, whom he had heard crying and begging in one of numerous tense cellphone conversations with their armed captors.

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