By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"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."
He ended up in Mexico, but 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 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 Phoenix neighborhoods. 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 exhausted men, women and children to a new set of hired hands. These guards play different roles. 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 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.
From the moment 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.
In 1998, 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. They pressed their gun barrels 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.
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. 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 that he would believe her.
He yanked out his hand and moved on to his next victim. She was relieved that 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?"