By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
From the moment that pollos are in coyotes' grasp, both captive and captor must be wary of the bajadores, who sometimes burst into homes using homemade battering rams to 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 that she prayed 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 was 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.
As he was about to slip his fingers inside of her, his hand brushed against a panty liner inside her underwear.
"Are you on your period?" he asked, disgusted.
"Yes," she quickly lied, hoping he would believe her.
He yanked out his hand and moved on to his next victim. She was relieved he didn't check her mouth and find the 14-karat-gold chain that her sister had given her for luck.
"Nothing like that had ever happened to me," Marisol says. "It's just horrible because you can't defend yourself. I just kept thinking, How can they do this to us? They know what will happen to us if we don't have money. How can they not have a soul?"
Later, Marisol and the others encountered another band of robbers, but they had nothing left to give. They were searched — and violated — a second time and then allowed to continue their trek.
The group finally reached the designated spot in the Arizona desert where they waited for a van to arrive and drive them to Phoenix. To avoid detection by border agents, Marisol and the others were told to lie face-down on the summer-rain-soaked ground. Her aching body welcomed the two-hour rest. She didn't care about the mud or the flies and bugs that crawled on her.
The van arrived, stopping about a half-mile away. They were told to run as fast as they could until they reached it — and that stragglers would pay dearly. With all the energy they had left, Marisol and the others sprinted to the van and jumped in. The driver then calmly drove north.
"We got to a house in south Phoenix, and they fed us," she recalls. "There were men guarding the door with guns. They kept us there until... our families came with the money."
Her husband paid to free her and her brother. For weeks after she had returned to her life in America, nightmares of the ordeal besieged her.
"People come [to the United States] out of necessity, but some here don't understand that," she tells New Times. "No one wants to travel back and forth to their native country like this. It feels like we're trapped. People think we're happy living this way. They're wrong."
The players in human-smuggling syndicates are predominantly Mexican nationals working both sides of the border, but investigators have discovered examples of white U.S. citizens — whom coyotes know are much less suspicious to police — involved in the trade.
It was mid-morning April 1 when a state trooper pulled over Brook Ashley Sieckman, a 34-year-old white California woman, on a traffic violation. She was driving a Chevy Suburban west on Interstate 10 through Buckeye. Because it was discovered that she also had a suspended driver's license, Arizona law requires that her vehicle be impounded for 30 days.
As the officer took inventory of Sieckman's personal items in the car, he found four men and a woman hidden beneath blankets. The immigrants were turned over to ICE, and Sieckman was arrested and jailed on suspicion of human smuggling.
In April, Roman Mendez drove to Arizona from his home in California to pay coyotes to release four of his relatives who had arrived from Mexico the previous day. The exchange was made at a Denny's restaurant in the town of Tempe. As Mendez drove away with his family members, the coyotes who delivered the hostages called a cohort to tell him that the family had paid the entire smuggling fee within hours.