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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.
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 that he and other pollos were allowed to move freely around the initial house; they could even get food from a well-stocked refrigerator. Weapons were not brandished, and there were no 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 sent.
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.
After some pollos arrive at the second house, no matter which band of coyotes is holding them, they are often forced to strip naked and pose in sexually humiliating positions while their captors take pictures. Some might be made to work off their debts by becoming guards, drivers, or maids 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, and 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 might spread vastly beyond that world to residents with no connection to it — as it has in Mexico.
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 Lt. Lauri Burgett, who oversees investigators assigned to the Phoenix Police Department's specialized anti-smuggling unit HIKE (Home Invasion and Kidnapping Enforcement), created just 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.
South of the border, the men pitching smuggling services at places such 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 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.
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 this past 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 their victims at her house. HIKE's Lieutenant 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.