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Illegal immigrants stashed in houses in U.S. hubs

| Sunday, July 19, 2015, 6:09 p.m.
Hidalgo County Constable Sgt. Aaron Moreno walks through a stash house in Edinburg, Texas.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Hidalgo County Constable Sgt. Aaron Moreno walks through a stash house in Edinburg, Texas.
Illegal immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador wait to be moved upon being discovered in a stash house by Border Patrol, Homeland Security and constables.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Illegal immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador wait to be moved upon being discovered in a stash house by Border Patrol, Homeland Security and constables.
A woman, suspected of being an illegal immigrant, breaks down as Border Patrol and constables search a home where she was residing in Elsa, Texas.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A woman, suspected of being an illegal immigrant, breaks down as Border Patrol and constables search a home where she was residing in Elsa, Texas.
Hidalgo County Deputy Constable Michael Anzaldua sits in his vehicle during an operation to find a suspect in a human-smuggling case near Edinburg, Texas.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Hidalgo County Deputy Constable Michael Anzaldua sits in his vehicle during an operation to find a suspect in a human-smuggling case near Edinburg, Texas.
A woman, suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, holds a child as Border Patrol and constables search a home where she was residing in Elsa, Texas.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A woman, suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, holds a child as Border Patrol and constables search a home where she was residing in Elsa, Texas.

HOUSTON – Northleaf Drive runs through a suburban neighborhood where residents manicure their lawns and hedges.

American flags flap near their front doors.

Kids ride bikes in a loop along roads called Heather Hills, Winding Trace and Cactus Flower.

To residents, the squat ranch on Northleaf Drive in northwest Houston seemed to fit in. True, no one seemed to know the names of the four men who lived there, off and on. But neighbors told a Tribune-Review investigations reporter that they were still shocked when, eight days before Christmas 2012, police surrounded the home, guns drawn.

“We got inside and locked the door, like they told us to do,” said Jim Gomez, 21. “We'd seen the guys there, but we never talked to them. We saw no one parked there. We saw no one coming or going but those guys.”

Inside the 1,700-square-foot house, officers found 43 undocumented Honduran and Salvadoran immigrants clad only in underwear, a tactic used by some stash house operators to keep illegal immigrants from fleeing atrocious living conditions or bolting before relatives can wire the final installment of their smuggling fees – what smugglers call the “buyout.”

Other smugglers rely on threats of being caught and deported to keep undocumented immigrants in line.

Police found one unescorted 5-year-old boy clutching a scrap of paper scrawled with his mom's cell phone number, the only way to reach her.

The quartet of coyotes — an American enforcer who kept house discipline with a baseball bat; another American who gathered the wire transfers; a pair of cooks, from Mexico and Honduras – were heavily armed.

Stash house operators know that their human cargo usually can't escape. And even if they do, they rarely go to the police because they'll probably be deported. Ratting out smugglers for fraud, violence or sex crimes committed against illegal aliens can trigger similar reprisals on relatives back home, so they keep mum.

“But we don't want Houston to become a hunting ground for the predators,” said Capt. H.D. “Dan” Harris, director of the Houston Police Department's vice division and its new anti-trafficking task force.

The nation's fourth largest city, Houston is about 350 miles north of the Mexico border. It's become the top destination for illegal immigrants trafficked nationwide after entering the United States and a hub for moving people and money across the hemisphere, often using stash houses.

Detectives traced the Northleaf Drive ring to a criminal syndicate in Reynosa, a Mexican city along the Rio Grande River. Rival cartels, Los Zetas and Cártel del Golfo, split that city's underworld. The immigrants freed by the police had been smuggled into the United States near Rio Grande City, Texas, transported from stash house to stash house across a jumble of towns to the east, and then taken north around Falfurrias, where Border Patrol mans a large highway checkpoint midway between Houston and the border.

In the Rio Grande Valley, stash house operations are becoming more violent, authorities say, with traffickers now stealing at gunpoint crowds of illegal immigrants being housed by rival gangs. Then they ransom off the people.

That tactic has yet to arrive in Houston but the number of traffickers employing fraud, coercion, starvation and force on illegal immigrants has become so bad that the city's police in March launched a special squad of detectives to crack down.

“It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, if you're a victim, the Houston Police Department wants to know about that,” Harris said.

A Trib investigative analysis of 3,254 human smuggling convictions in federal courts that oversee the border from Houston to San Diego shows what Harris and his vice cops are up against.

The analysis found 82 coyotes in 2013 and 2014 who were found guilty of ransoming off immigrants. Fifteen others were alleged to have raped female immigrants inside stash houses.

Of those 97 convicted coyotes, 44 were arrested in the Rio Grande Valley, 29 in Houston, and eight in Falfurrias — the midway point, showing how stash houses work in the smuggling corridors and beyond.

A Trib investigations reporter followed local police and U.S. Homeland Security agents on stash house surveillance missions and raids across southern Texas, including a Dec. 10 roundup along Doolittle Road in Edinburg. Inside, cops found a dozen undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico.

None was stripped to undergarments, but a woman alleged to officers that one of the coyotes had raped her.

Municipal detectives uncover sexual assaults and sex slavery frequently, often by tracing crimes reported to agencies far away from Texas stash houses.

Houston officers, for example, shuttered a Beechnut Street stash house after detectives in New Jersey contacted them to report an illegal alien in the sex trade. The officers then realized that the house had been used to shuttle illegal immigrants to West Virginia and Tennessee, too.

Houston cops most often start their surveillance after getting tips from relatives of the illegal immigrants who are being shaken down for more money. That's how they discovered an Alameda School Road stash house and caught a crew of heavily armed coyotes trying to ransom a mother and her two children for $13,000.

The detectives rescued them and 112 other undocumented immigrants, according to court documents.

“The bad guys monitor what their neighbors do and all the traffic on the outside. They know what everyone's patterns are. So they'll bring their van in at night or when they know everyone's not home,” said Houston Police Lt. Terry Horton.

To help identify stash houses, Horton said residents should look for windows that are boarded up, painted black or covered with towels. Smugglers often use video cameras to monitor outside traffic, and top their high fences with barbed wire. They cut down on trips to the grocery – and neighbors seeing their movements – by keeping gardens and chickens.

American coyotes interviewed by the Trib investigations team said some stash house operators are vicious, but added that illegal immigrants have incentive to lie about conditions as a ploy to curry sympathy with authorities, staving off deportation or obtaining permanent visas.

Arrested in 2013, American coyote Jisel Emery Cruz, 32, calls her 46-month sentence for conspiracy in human smuggling “totally unfair.” An immigrant told authorities that Cruz's two brothers kidnapped him from a rival stash house and fed him one egg daily, but Cruz said the immigrants dined on pizza, chicken and other fast food and weren't being ransomed.

Rather, the coyotes were awaiting cash they were owed to transport them to Houston. Too often, she said, prosecutors believe the aliens over U.S. citizens, a complaint echoed in several interviews with incarcerated coyotes.

“I don't know why the illegals claimed what they did. I saw them a couple of times alone and they never told me anything was wrong,” Cruz said. “They were treated decently.”