Seized

Inside the brutal world of America's kidnapping capital

Such trips are rarely as advertised.

Flores, who had traveled more than a day from Mexico City, chose a guide and was led to a hotel, where he was locked inside a room for four days. He was eager to find work in Phoenix to support the wife and children he had left behind. Flores waited with other pollos until the guides were ready to begin their trek across the border into Arizona in 2006.

"We had to crawl through a tunnel and ended up in an abandoned house," Flores says. "The same coyotes pulled out butcher knives—the kind you use to kill a pig. I was so afraid. They robbed me, and I ran. I thought I was going to die, but you can't tell the police."

Kidnappers tortured this hostage by submerging him in water while Tasering him.
Phoenix Police Department/Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement
Kidnappers tortured this hostage by submerging him in water while Tasering him.
This "torture closet" was used to brutally abuse a Phoenix kidnapping victim  whose family could not pay his ransom. He was rescued by police after  four days of being beaten, stabbed, sodomized and burned with a  blowtorch.
Phoenix Police Department/Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement
This "torture closet" was used to brutally abuse a Phoenix kidnapping victim whose family could not pay his ransom. He was rescued by police after four days of being beaten, stabbed, sodomized and burned with a blowtorch.

He ended up back in Mexico, but he risked the journey again with a different coyote, who told him it would cost $1,200 to get to Phoenix. When he arrived, that fee turned into $1,500. He paid it and was released.

"They don't have any morals," Flores says. "All they care about is money."

South of the border, the men pitching smuggling services at such places as bus stops in border towns are the first links in a complex human-smuggling chain.

Known by authorities as "border organizers," they charge varying amounts, usually $1,800 to $2,500, to smuggle a single pollo into the United States, making arrangements with family members to wire smuggling fees. Depending on how a smuggling ring is organized, a cut of that money goes to subcontractors who don't work for a single criminal syndicate, but rather provide a specific service—such as operating a string of drop houses where cargo can be locked up.

Car thieves play a key role in the underworld of human smuggling. They are paid to steal heavy-duty trucks or vans from Phoenix-area streets, stock them with supplies and camouflage them in the desert. Coyotes use the vehicles to move immigrants to drop houses hidden in plain sight in neighborhoods across the metro area. Others hired to drive these vehicles can earn $50 to $100 for each illegal immigrant they ferry to a destination.

As they sneak across the Sonoran Desert, coyotes take their cues from spotters in the mountains armed with weapons, high-powered surveillance equipment, and cell phones or two-way radios. They warn coyotes below about the movement of Border Patrol agents. Leaders in these organized-crime operations even hire technicians to erect cell-phone towers in the vast desert expanse to ensure uninterrupted communication.

Once in the Phoenix area, coyotes pull up to the drop houses, usually under the cover of night, and pass their loads of worn and exhausted men, women and children to a new set of hired hands. These guards play different roles in the smuggling operations. Some make sure pollos don't escape, while others dole out threats and beatings. Guards generally get paid for each person they watch and sometimes are dispatched to collect ransoms.

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 victims at her house. HIKE's 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 says 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.

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