By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
"Did they have guns?" the investigator asked Maria.
"What did they look like?"
She pointed to the gun strapped to the detective's waist. "Square, like yours."
"Did they assault you?" he asked after she told him that the guards raped the other women.
She shook her head. "No."
"Are you sure?" he pressed.
She nodded, just barely.
Detectives worked well into the evening interviewing and fingerprinting the pollos. Finally, the immigrants were turned over to federal immigration agents. A select few, needed to testify against their captors, would eventually be granted temporary visas and released to their families.
Maria and her husband were not among them. At the end of the night, they were locked up again, this time in a holding tank where they awaited deportation.
Phoenix is labeled the kidnapping capital of the United States because of people- and drug-smuggling out of Mexico. It's a catch phrase that politicians such as U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona use to alarm voters into buying the get-tough-on-illegals policies they're selling. But it's the smuggled immigrants — not the general public — who overwhelmingly are the primary victims.
In 2008, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, there were 368 reported kidnappings in Phoenix, up from 160 in 1999. Almost all of the abductions were inside the smuggling world. In 2008, IIMPACT detectives worked 63 kidnapping cases, investigated 49 drop houses, and arrested 129 human smugglers.
Authorities say the statistics represent only a fraction of the actual kidnappings in metro Phoenix. The smattering that are reported come from victims who escaped, from families desperate to free their loved ones, or from anonymous tips.
In the absence of federal immigration reform, experts believe that immigrants will continue to risk their lives and rely on coyotes as they search for better lives in this country. And it doesn't seem likely that a fix will come soon.
Yet amid the ongoing rhetoric and raging emotions about illegal immigration, migrants such as Maria continue to risk their lives to get here.
As for the IIMPACT detectives who find and save victims like Maria, they don't consider themselves immigration officers.
"Our goal is not to enforce [immigration laws], but to get violent criminals off our streets," says IIMPACT's Sergeant Reiter, not mentioning that every undocumented victim IIMPACT encounters winds up in ICE custody.
As investigators questioned Maria, they learned that the smuggling organization that had taken her and her husband hostage also operated what police call a "violence house." If she and the others hadn't been rescued, those whose families didn't come up with the ransom money probably would have ended up there.
Guards inside such places employ a brutal style of persuasion.
They're known to beat and torture victims while family members listen on the telephone. The torment continues for as long as it takes to get the money, until hostages die from their injuries or — in rare instances — until the police burst in and free them.
Investigators desperately wanted to find that house, but the smugglers had taken pains to keep its location secret.
As coyotes move their human cargo from place to place, they conceal pollos under blankets or plywood. Maria's captors had stopped briefly at the violence house on their way to the dwelling where IIMPACT had found them, but they were covered in the back of the van, so she couldn't discern the exact location of the torture chamber. Detectives tried to piece together scant details from victims. One pollo told investigators that they had traveled about ten minutes between the two houses; another said it was only five. The cops were never able to find the place.
Tracking down violence houses is a priority for IIMPACT officers, who have seen firsthand the chilling brutality that happens inside them.
A cell-phone video that investigators confiscated from one such drop house captured a typical beating:
A man with wavy black hair and a pale face can be seen lying on his side, a semiautomatic weapon just inches from his head. A coyote's hand is pushing down the man's head to keep him from moving. The victim's eyes are squeezed tightly shut. For a moment, he opens them — wide — and the horror is unmistakable. The gun still in his face, he squeezes his eyes shut. His lips are moving rapidly (there is no sound in the video). He opens and closes his eyes a second time. The hand that is holding down the victim's head suddenly goes up in the air, and — crack! — a fist slams into the side of the man's head, ripping the skin near his ear. Blood oozes down his temple. The video ends.
"We see some of the most violent people in the country," Reiter says. "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.