Investigators looking into possible connection with drug cartels.
By Patrick George AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
AUSTIN POLICE DEPARTMENTFernando Sandoval Salazar is likely to face more charges, official says.
Police have arrested a man suspected of being in charge of several "coyotes" who held at least eight men hostage in a far East Austin house until their families in Mexico, Honduras and other countries paid a ransom.
Officers are searching for accomplices and are trying to determine whether the group had ties to Mexican drug cartels, said police Cmdr. Donald Baker.
"We're still looking into that, but I will say that from past experiences, the same organizations that are associated with the cartels are using the same methods, the same transportation routes and the same stash houses," said Baker, who oversees the department's organized crime efforts.
The suspect, 33-year-old Fernando Sandoval Salazar, remains in custody at the Travis County Jail and is charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. His bail has been set at $100,000. Baker said detectives expect to file other charges related to kidnapping and human trafficking. Salazar's arrest affidavit said he is a citizen of Mexico.
Baker said that one of the men called his wife in New York and told her he was being held against his will in Austin by four coyotes. He told her the coyotes were threatening him with violence and transportation back to the border unless she paid $1,800, Baker said.
The man's wife called New York police, who relayed the message to police in Austin. When officers arrived at a home in the 6400 block of Johnny Morris Road, they found the man and others being held captive there, police said.
The man told police that on Sunday he paid a smuggler in Mexico $2,000 to bring him into the United States, the affidavit said. When he arrived in Austin by 7 a.m. Sunday , he and 14 other men were taken to the house on Johnny Morris Road. Four men there had weapons and threatened the smuggled men with violence and death if their families did not pay $1,800 each, the affidavit said.
When officers arrived at the house Sunday night, Baker said, a group of men ran outside, some away from police and some toward them. Eight men were recovered from the house, and Salazar was taken into custody, Baker said. He said police are trying to locate the others who fled.
Salazar appeared to be in charge of the coyotes, the man told police.
The smuggled men are from Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala, Baker said. One of them is a 15-year-old boy who crossed the border seeking to join family members in Houston, the affidavit said. The coyotes held a knife to his stomach and demanded his family's phone numbers, the affidavit said. He was forced to cook and clean for the coyotes because his family did not have the $1,800 for his release, the affidavit said.
Baker said outside agencies will assist the kidnapping victims and help them get back to their families.
The American-Statesman reported this month that federal, state and local law enforcement officials are combating an increased cartel presence in Central Texas, which is also tied to local gangs. Human trafficking is often connected to cartel activity.
"This is another example of how this is happening in Austin," Baker said. "We're having innocent victims' families that are being extorted, threatened with violence and held against their will for weeks on end, and it's continuing around our neighborhoods."