By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Maria was drifting off to sleep on the bedroom floor. She could hear women getting raped in the next room. Only she didn't hear screams—she heard the laughter of male guards.
The women had been drugged by their rapists, who had done the same to Maria as soon as she walked into the house. They forced her to swallow a red liquid and handed her some chalky, white pills. She drank the liquid and tucked the pills on the side of her mouth, but they were slowly dissolving.
The drugs were beginning to deaden her senses.
Maria had arrived at the modest three-bedroom house in west Phoenix several days earlier in the back of a white van. She was one of about a dozen immigrants who had hired coyotes to smuggle them into the United States in the spring of this year. They each paid the human smugglers about $1,800 to guide them safely through the treacherous Arizona desert.
Their guides betrayed them. They delivered them to other coyotes, who were more vicious than their counterparts. The kidnappers demanded another $1,700 apiece for Maria and the 12 others, including two young boys, they were holding.
The armed captors had tried to lock up Maria in the same room with the other women. She was gripped by fear as she watched one of the guards stripping off the women's clothes.
Maria's husband argued with the kidnappers, telling them that she was sick, that he needed to keep an eye on her. Rather than hassle with a couple of the pollos (smugglers' slang for their cargo), the guards allowed them to stay together.
Along with the men, the smugglers stashed her in the master bedroom.
When it was safe, she pulled the pills out of her mouth and gave them to her husband. He slipped them into the pocket of his white-washed jeans.
She looked around the bare bedroom at the men sitting on the floor. They were tired and worn. There was a large piece of plywood nailed over the window; a deadbolt on the door that locked from the outside.
There was no escape.
The pollos had come from poverty-stricken towns in Mexico and Guatemala in search of a better existence. Maria later told Phoenix New Times, the Observer's sister paper, that she and her husband had hoped to find work. Back home in Mexico, jobs were scarce, she said, and the lucky few who found them earned a meager 100 pesos for a full day's work. Less than $7.80 a day.
The promise of making a living wage is what drove Maria and the others to walk through the desert for eight days, crawl through tunnels, and move from camp to camp, car to car, and from one band of coyotes to another within the same smuggling operation.
The captives called their families back home, or relatives in Arizona, to plead for money they knew the families probably didn't have. Days went by as Maria's family worked to come up with more cash. The impatient guards threatened to beat their captives and dump their dead bodies in the desert if the money didn't show up.
Terrified and confused, Maria was allowed to leave the room only when it was her turn to help cook for the guards or to clean the house. One of the other women told Maria that they had been in the house for more than a month. The women talked quietly while they prepared meals for the hostages—a bean burrito, a few ramen noodles, or a boiled egg split among four people. The immigrants weren't given anything to drink; they slurped water from a bathroom sink.
While Maria and the other captives played a macabre version of house, they had no idea that a specialized team of police detectives, analysts and U.S. immigration agents had begun a rescue mission to release them and arrest their kidnappers.
An anonymous caller had tipped off Phoenix police about the home where the illegal immigrants were held. The tip was passed on to members of a police task force called IIMPACT (Illegal Immigration Prevention Apprehension Co-op Team). The countywide effort to dismantle smuggling rings, arrest violent criminals and rescue hostages includes detectives from the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Phoenix Police Department and agents from ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
Investigators spent three days deciphering the tipster's information. Once the suburban prison was in their sights, they arranged for a SWAT team to raid the house, arrested four suspected kidnappers and rescued the hostages, including Maria.
"The looks on their faces; they just lit up," Phoenix police Sergeant Harry Reiter, who supervises IIMPACT detectives, says of the rescued hostages. "They were so grateful. They didn't care that [they would have to] go back south of the border—they just wanted out of the kidnappers' hold."
Although removed from the coyotes' clutches, the pollos were hardly free. They were taken into police custody, given food and beverages and interviewed by detectives.
When it was her turn, Maria tugged nervously at the sleeves of her shirt as she answered questions inside a small cubicle. Her answers were void of detail, but the detective extracted information from her to build a case against the coyotes. They spoke in Spanish.