'Better to Be Deported Alive Than to Be Dead'
For undocumented residents, a call demanding ransom for a kidnapped loved one can lead to an equally fear-inducing call to federal immigration authorities.

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.

ICE agents working at their Prosperity Avenue offices in Fairfax County were able to trace the calls to a house in west Phoenix within hours of Martinez's coming forward Jan. 9. Local and federal authorities raided the house 2,400 miles away 34 hours later, freeing 21 immigrant hostages -- including Martinez's in-laws. They were sent back to El Salvador.

"It's better to be deported alive than to be dead and dropped in the desert," Martinez said in Spanish in a recent interview, sitting with his wife, Teresa, and son, Alexis. "If I didn't call, maybe they would have killed them, and it would have been my fault."

As Martinez was receiving the extortion calls in January, his in-laws, Walter Flores, 42, and Sonia Maribel Valdez-Navas, 47, were squatting in the corner of a crowded and stinking bedroom at 8821 W. Palm Lane in Phoenix. The windows were covered with plywood, the hostages were stripped of their clothes, shoes and belts, and talk of escape was wistful and unrealistic. A guard flashed a 9mm handgun.

"They said terrible things," Valdez-Navas said in Spanish from El Salvador. "I worried a lot. I cried a lot. I didn't eat. They said if they didn't get the money, they would take out our organs and sell them. I cried a lot."

Valdez-Navas and her husband had made their way to the United States via Mexico on a journey to the Washington area to meet their grandson. They earned enough money in Mexicali to pay for what they expected would be a $1,500 trip. After walking in the desert for three days and crossing into Arizona near the dusty town of Sasabe, they were rushed to a U.S. highway and shoved in the back of a vehicle before arriving at the Phoenix house.

"They sold us like chickens," she said. She and her husband were in a room with about 10 other hostages, occasionally eating soup and sleeping on a dingy gray carpet.

Officials said hostages are treated like any other illicit commodity. Some are sold or bartered between groups, even stolen by rivals in carjackings and raids, according to federal court records. Martinez said he spoke to multiple callers demanding money and said he would have paid if he could have.

Court records and interviews show the terror extending across the country after the captors demand phone numbers of relatives. Often, the calls include hostages pleading for help or being tortured.

"We've had everything from people taking a brick and smashing the hostages' hands to tying them up with barbed wire to using a car battery to administer electrical shocks to get the relatives to bring the money," said Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris. "And the conditions in these houses are absolutely atrocious. People are dehydrated, they're tied up, they're beaten."

Matthew Allen, special agent in charge of ICE investigations in Phoenix, said his office gets 40 to 50 referrals a year for such cases. Some of the houses he's raided have as many as 100 hostages crammed inside.

"We get these calls from all over the country," Allen said. "We see this as something we need to deal with urgently. There are victims out there that we need to find."

Allen's office worked on 40 hostage cases in fiscal 2008 alone, rescuing 584 people from their captors in Arizona, according to ICE data. From October 2006 through June, ICE handled 6,157 human smuggling cases resulting in 3,596 criminal convictions and seizures of more than $34 million. ICE does not compile national data on hostage cases.

Although ICE officials recognize that everyone involved -- the immigrants and the kidnappers -- have broken the law, they say they want to save lives first and sort out immigration status second. Allen said the victims are part of the criminal conspiracy, "but at the same time, most of them didn't sign up for what ended up happening."

"The victims are universally grateful," Allen said, adding that most are removed from the country but some remain to testify in court or assist investigations.

In Martinez's case, authorities arrested six men in a nighttime raid on the house in west Phoenix, recovering a Browning 9mm handgun and ledgers cataloguing smuggling activity. Six were convicted in U.S. District Court in Arizona and are serving sentences ranging from 24 to 46 months.

'I Risked So Much'

ICE agents and local police have been working to break into the organizations that smuggle and take hostages, expecting to peel back layers of management that mirror a drug organization. The hostages -- also known as "pollos," Spanish for chickens -- are guarded by armed men at the lowest level of vast organizations that authorities say rely on smugglers ("coyotes"), muscle, drivers, financiers and others to carry out extortion schemes.

Francisco Javier Quinones-Soriano, a slight man who himself was smuggled into the United States from Mexico, was one of the guards at the house and was sentenced to 30 months in prison in June. But his attorney said Quinones-Soriano was a prisoner of the smuggling system, someone who didn't have contacts in the United States and couldn't pay off his debt to the cartel. Out of options, he became a guard who did not relish his role.

Jim Park, a Phoenix attorney who represented Quinones-Soriano, likened smuggling operations to drug cartels, with organizers supervising recruiters, guards, money collectors, those who arrange drop houses and those who make the extortion calls.

"You have a 'pollo' who started out as a victim and they become the guards, and they work as a guard or a cook and they work their debt off. You rarely, if ever, find the guy who organized it all at these houses," Park said. "I think [the authorities] are going after the guys they can find. They're putting out fires left and right. I think they're trying to go up, but it's very difficult. There is a lot of protection for the higher-ups because they are insulated. People don't want to talk. They'll do their time because they don't want to face the repercussions."

Dinkins, the top ICE official in the Washington field office, said the agency is following organizations that smuggle drugs, money, weapons and people, groups that want to get "the biggest bang for the least risk." Allen said ICE is working to get deep into the cartels: "Our job is to get beyond these people to the organizers."

ICE is using ongoing hostage cases to make those inroads. One such case arose out of Prince William County in April.

Just as Juana, 22, of Manassas, was expecting her brother to be crossing into the United States, her cellphone rang. Violent smugglers had Felix, and they wanted $800 in cash to set him free.

So Juana scraped $800 together and wired the money to Texas. Then more urgent calls came, demanding $5,000 more in cash. If she didn't comply, they said, they were going to chop her 18-year-old brother into pieces and send them to her, one by one, in the mail.

At one point, a woman warned Juana: "You're starting trouble with the wrong people."

Unable to pay, Juana, an undocumented immigrant, called Prince William police. Within 48 hours, authorities tracked the kidnappers to a house near McAllen, Tex., and freed 17 hostages who had been bound, gagged and beaten.

"If I had the $5,000, I probably would have sent it to them," Juana said in Spanish through an interpreter. She spoke on the condition that her last name not be used because she is considered a witness to the violent crime. "I didn't know what to do, so I called the police."

Prince William's policy of turning illegal immigrants over to ICE has caused police officials to worry of a chilling effect, causing immigrants who are victimized to choose not to report crimes.

"I'm very pleased she called, and I'm sure she was desperate because of her brother's situation," said Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane. "Our policy is that we're committed to protecting crime victims regardless of their immigration status. Time was of the essence, and our urgent response was critical. This case had grave potential."

Officers Donald Hoffman and Juan Sanchez Jr. responded to Juana's initial call. Armed with the phone numbers Juana had jotted down, Sanchez linked them to south Texas and set up a call with the kidnappers in which Juana agreed to make the payment.

"We believed that by 5 p.m. that day they were going to kill him," Sanchez said. Hoffman added: "While we were hopeful we could help Felix, we had no idea how many people were at risk."

Working with ICE officials in Texas and Washington, police pinpointed the Texas drop house within hours. Felix, who was sent back to El Salvador, told his sister that he was bound and gagged for three weeks, he barely ate, was made to sleep standing up and was beaten with fishing rods.

"He was very grateful when he was rescued," Juana said. "They sent him home, but he's thankful to God that he's alive."

Valdez-Navas, who endured days of captivity in Phoenix and was removed to El Salvador after speaking with authorities, said she continues to have nightmares.

"I wanted to know my grandson," Valdez-Navas said, crying. "I was sad I wouldn't get to realize my dream. I risked so much. I almost died."

Juana, whose brother also survived because of her phone call to authorities, said he has no desire to try to come back into the United States because "he's scared now even to think about it."

In the days after her brother was rescued, Juana received calls from the cartel, some bluffing that they still had her brother and wanted payment. At one point, cartel members asked to meet Juana at a fast-food restaurant in Manassas -- near her home -- to exchange cash. It was another bluff, but one that led police to fear for Juana's safety.

Juana and Martinez continue to live in the Washington area, and they say they are not in ICE removal proceedings. ICE tends to pursue illegal immigrants with criminal problems but would not comment on their individual circumstances.

Police and ICE officials want people like Juana and Martinez to call, because lives are on the line. They also urge people wishing to come to the United States to follow the rules and not put their lives in the hands of violent cartels.

"We want to make sure that [people] who have made a decision to be smuggled into the U.S. understand that they are putting their lives at risk, perhaps more so than ever," Allen said.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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