By Erin Sherbert
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Maria and her husband were not among them. They were locked in a holding tank, awaiting deportation.
Phoenix is labeled the kidnapping capital of the United States today because of drug smuggling — and human smuggling — out of Mexico.
"Kidnapping capital" is a catchphrase used by Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and other elected officials 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 are overwhelmingly the primary victims.
In 2008, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, 368 reported kidnappings occurred 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. The smattering of reported cases come from victims who escaped, from families desperate to free their loved ones, or from anonymous tips.
In the absence of federal immigration reform, experts believe that immigrants will continue to risk their lives and rely on coyotes. And a fix seems unlikely to 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 provides no 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. Mexico, where more than a million people have applications pending, has the same quota as Belgium. Also, federal authorities say one goal of immigration policy is to reunite families by admitting immigrants with relatives already here, but backlogs mean that it can take 20 years or longer to review green card applications.
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, victims whose families didn't come up with the ransom money probably would've wound up there.
Guards inside such places employ a brutal style of persuasion. They will beat and torture victims while family members listen on the phone. The torment continues for as long as it takes to get the money, until hostages die from their injuries, or — in rare instances — until police free them.
Investigators wanted desperately to find the violence house, but the smugglers carefully 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 briefly at the violence house on their way to the dwelling where IIMPACT had found them, but she and the other hostages were covered in the back of the van, so she couldn't discern the location.
Detectives tried to piece together scant details. One pollo told investigators they had traveled about 10 minutes between the two houses. Another said it was only five. The cops were never able to find the place.Tracking down violence houses is a priority for IIMPACT officers, who have seen firsthand the chilling brutality that takes place inside them.
A cellphone video that investigators confiscated from one such drop house, and which they allowed a reporter 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 on his 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.
Kidnappers kick and punch hostages, beat them with baseball bats, submerge them in bathtubs and electrically shock them, burn their flesh with blowtorches, smash their fingers with bricks, slice their bodies with butcher knives, shoot them in their limbs, and cut open their backs with wire cutters. The kidnappers usually videotape the sexual humiliation and violence and send the images to family members if ransoms aren't paid.
The violence house is one of several — usually three — dwellings where smuggled immigrants are stashed.
Horrible conditions intensify after the first house, which some victims describe as almost welcoming.
Juan, a 59-year-old diabetic from Guatemala, hired a coyote to bring him to Phoenix so he could spend time with his 88-year-old mother. He said in an interview that he and other pollos were allowed to move freely around the first house. They could even get food from a well-stocked refrigerator. No weapons were brandished, and no threats against their lives were made.