Seized: Inside the brutal world of America's kidnapping capital

Part of the Amongst Us series

When it was her turn, Maria tugged nervously at the sleeves of her shirt as she answered questions inside a small cubicle. Her voice was barely audible, and she stared at the floor. Her answers were void of detail, but the detective extracted information from her to build a case against the coyotes. They spoke in Spanish as New Times listened.

"Did they have guns?" the investigator asked Maria.

"Yes."

A Phoenix drop house where coyotes held more than two dozen illegal  immigrants hostage. Kid- 
nappers force their victims to strip to make it  hard for them to escape.
Phoenix Police Department/Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement (HIKE)
A Phoenix drop house where coyotes held more than two dozen illegal immigrants hostage. Kid- nappers force their victims to strip to make it hard for them to escape.

"What did they look like?"

She pointed to the gun strapped to the detective's waist. "Square, like yours."

"Did they assault you?" he asked, after she told him that the guards raped the other women.

She shook her head. "No."

"Are you sure?" he pressed.

She nodded, just barely.

Detectives worked well into the evening interviewing and fingerprinting the pollos. Finally, the immigrants were turned over to federal immigration agents. A select few, needed to testify against their captors, eventually would be granted temporary visas and released to family.

Maria and her husband were not among them. At the end of the night, they were locked up again, this time in a holding tank where they awaited deportation.

Phoenix is labeled the kidnapping capital of the United States because of people- and drug-smuggling out of Mexico. It's a catchphrase that politicians like U.S. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona use to alarm voters into buying the get-tough-on-illegals policies they're selling. But it's the smuggled immigrants — not the general public — who overwhelmingly are the victims.

In 2008, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, there were 368 reported kidnappings in Phoenix, up from 160 in 1999. Almost all the abductions were inside the smuggling world. In 2008, IIMPACT detectives worked 63 kidnapping cases, investigated 49 drop houses, and arrested 129 human smugglers.

Authorities say the statistics represent only a fraction of the actual kidnappings in metro Phoenix. That smattering is reported by victims who escaped, from families desperate to free their loved ones, or by anonymous tips — such as the one that led investigators to the house where Maria and her husband were held.

In the absence of federal immigration reform, experts believe that immigrants will continue to risk their lives and rely on coyotes as they search for better lives in this country. And it doesn't seem likely that a fix will come soon.

A report published in October 2009 by the Immigration Policy Center think tank ("Breaking Down the Problems: What's Wrong With Our Immigration System?") highlights some of the major problems with federal immigration policy, including arbitrary caps on visas and an enforcement-only approach that doesn't provide practical legal alternatives for entering the United States.

For example, Congress places equal limits on the number of U.S. visas available to each nation. That means that a country like Mexico, where more than 1 million people have applications pending, has the same quota as Belgium. Also, on paper, federal authorities say one of the goals of immigration policy is to reunite families by admitting immigrants with relatives in the United States, but deep backlogs mean that it can take 20 years or longer for immigration officials to review an application for a green card.

Meanwhile, rhetoric and raging emotion about illegal immigration continue.

As for the IIMAPCT detectives who find and save some victims like Maria, they don't consider themselves immigration officers.

"Our goal is not to enforce [immigration laws], but to get violent criminals off our streets," says Sergeant Reiter, not mentioning that every undocumented victim IIMAPCT encounters winds up in ICE custody.

As investigators questioned Maria, they learned that the smuggling organization that had taken her and her husband hostage also operated what police call a "violence house." If she and the others hadn't been rescued, those whose families didn't come up with ransom money probably would've wound up there.

Guards inside such places employ a brutal style of persuasion.

They're known to beat and torture victims while family members listen on the telephone. The torment can continue for as long as it takes to get the money, until hostages die from their injuries, or — in the rare instance — until police burst in and free them.

Investigators wanted desperately to find that house, but the smugglers had taken pains to keep its location secret.

As coyotes move their human cargo from place to place, they conceal pollos under blankets or plywood. Maria's captors had stopped at the violence house briefly on their way to the dwelling where IIMPACT had found them, but they were covered in the back of the van, so she couldn't discern the exact location of the torture chamber. Detectives tried to piece together scant details from victims. One pollo told investigators that they had traveled about 10 minutes between the two houses. Another said it was only five. The cops never were able to find the place.

Tracking down violence houses is a priority for IIMPACT officers, who have seen firsthand the chilling brutality that happens inside them.

A cell-phone video that investigators confiscated from one such drop house and allowed New Times to view captured a typical beating:

A man with wavy, black hair and a pale face can be seen lying on his side, a semi-automatic weapon just inches from his head. A coyote's hand is pushing down the man's head to keep him from moving. The victim's eyes are squeezed tightly shut. For a moment, he opens them — wide — and the horror is unmistakable. The gun still in his face, he squeezes his eyes shut. His lips are moving rapidly (there is no sound on the video). He opens and closes his eyes a second time. The hand that is holding down the victim's head suddenly goes up in the air, and — crack! — a fist slams into the side of the man's head, ripping the skin near his ear. Blood oozes down his temple. The video ends.

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