By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Marisol and the others encountered another band of robbers, but they had nothing left to give. They were searched—and violated—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—that stragglers would pay dearly. With all the energy they had left, they 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 says. "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."
Investigators worry that the smugglers' level of brutality in this country will someday mirror horrific acts of violence in Mexican cities like Nogales, Ciudad Juarez and Mexico City. Warring drug cartels in Mexico have decapitated victims and assassinated rivals, politicians and police officers. Competitors' heads have been hung in public squares.
But the methods of the criminal syndicates operating in Phoenix are nearly as demented—and the brutality is effective at getting families to pay. Those who don't or can't pay may never see their relatives again. Many pollos simply disappear, and their families, fearful of la migra, never make law enforcement the wiser.
The human rights organization Coalición de Derechos Humanos reported that between October 1 and June 30, authorities recovered the bodies of 153 people in the Sonoran Desert. Though many bodies are believed to be those of border crossers who succumbed to extreme temperatures and the harsh terrain, medical examiners determined that five of the individuals died of gunshot wounds, and seven succumbed to blunt-force injuries. Sixty-seven bodies were so badly decomposed that it couldn't be determined how they died.
In 2008, seven bodies were found dumped in the desert west of Phoenix. One victim was discovered in Avondale with his hands tied behind his back and a gunshot wound to the back of his head. Between March and October 2002, police found eight bodies north of Buckeye, Arizona. All of them had their hands bound behind their backs, bodies peppered with bullets.
With most of the killings unsolved, police can only surmise that the corpses were the work of smugglers.
The players in human-smuggling syndicates are predominately 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 on 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, her vehicle was impounded.
As the DPS 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.
Authorities don't know how many smuggling organizations operate in metro Phoenix, much less how many deal simultaneously in moving people, drugs and guns. What they do know is that smugglers have brought violent crime to area cities—some of it in broad daylight.
"Life is cheap for these people," Phoenix police Commander Brent Vermeer says of the kidnappers operating there.
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 near I-10 in 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.
They smelled an opportunity.
Still on the road minutes later, Mendez's car was overtaken in Phoenix and cut off by a car containing the same coyotes who had just let his family go. Armed men jumped out, and one of them ripped Mendez from the driver's seat. They then drove off in his vehicle with his family again in their custody. Soon, a phone call came from a man demanding even more money.
Reluctantly, Mendez alerted police. After HIKE detectives worked the case for three days, they were able to rescue the hostages and arrest the kidnappers.