Inside the brutal world of America's kidnapping capital

"We see some of the most violent people in the country," says IIMPACT's Reiter. "Obviously, the violence on the border is directly related to what happens here."

Kidnappers kick and punch hostages, beat them with baseball bats, submerge them in bathtubs and electrically shock them, burn their flesh with blowtorches, smash their fingers with bricks, slice their bodies with butcher knives, shoot them in their arms and legs, and cut open their backs with wire-cutters. The kidnappers usually videotape the sexual humiliation and violence and send the images to family members if ransoms aren't paid.

The torture house is one of several—usually three—dwellings where smuggled immigrants are stashed. Horrible conditions intensify after the first house, which some victims describe as almost welcoming.

A 32-year-old Latino, taken hostage by two armed men, narrowly  escaped getting buried alive inside this makeshift grave his kidnappers dug  inside a Phoenix home.
Phoenix Police Department/Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement
A 32-year-old Latino, taken hostage by two armed men, narrowly escaped getting buried alive inside this makeshift grave his kidnappers dug inside a Phoenix home.
Kidnappers nailed sheets of plywood over the windows of this west  Phoenix home to keep hostages from escaping.
IIMPACT (Illegal Immigration Prevention Apprehension Co-op Team)
Kidnappers nailed sheets of plywood over the windows of this west Phoenix home to keep hostages from escaping.


Juan, a 59-year-old diabetic from Guatemala, hired a coyote to bring him to Phoenix so he could spend time with his 88-year-old mother. He says he and other pollos were allowed to move freely around the initial house; they even could get food from a well-stocked refrigerator. There weren't any weapons brandished, any threats against their lives. Even so, the guards watched them closely and didn't let them forget they were prisoners. The guards made it clear that even though the initial smuggling fee had been paid, there was an additional price on their heads. The captors provided phones so the pollos could make arrangements to get extra cash wired.

Sometimes, pollos are kidnapped at gunpoint by bajadores from one drop house and taken to another operated by a rival organization, which then takes over extorting the captives.

Once some pollos arrive at the second house, no matter which band of coyotes is holding them, often they are forced to strip naked and pose in sexually humiliating positions while their captors take pictures. Some may be made to work off their debts by becoming guards, drivers or servants in a smuggling organization.

Violence houses are the last stops for most pollos. But they are the first stops for bajadores captured by the coyotes they've robbed, as well as for rival human and drug smugglers believed to have access to large sums of cash. The torture is especially fierce for these competitors.

The violence houses are evidence that although violent crimes have decreased in Arizona and across the country, they continue to run rampant within the smuggling world. Law enforcement is concerned that violence may spread vastly beyond that world to residents with no connection to it—as it has in Mexico. They have seen a handful of troubling local cases in which local Latinos were targeted because kidnappers needed to replace an escaped hostage or because they thought their new victim had money.

The kidnapping business is thriving in Phoenix because border traffic has siphoned through Arizona more and more over the past 15 years. The increase stems, in part, from border-security initiatives that pinched off entry points popular with illegal border crossers in Texas and California during the mid-1990s. As migration routes shifted to Arizona, many immigrants turned to coyotes to help them get across the Sonoran Desert.

Smuggling immigrants for nearly $2,000 each became a profitable venture, almost as lucrative as running drugs or weapons across the U.S.-Mexico border. Drug cartels joined forces with human smugglers in Mexico or branched out to include humans as part of their own cargoes. With the promise of making even more money, coyotes paid to guide their victims to a better life turned into kidnappers.

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.

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