Thursday, November 17, 2011

Expert Says Human Smuggling Kidnappings Way Up

Reported by: Melissa Correa
Reported by: Joe Augustine
Reported by: Farrah Fazal

SAN JUAN - The violence in Mexico hits Valley streets once again. Authorities are moving forward with a case that links Pharr, San Juan, McAllen and Houston.

A Houston family paid a group of people to smuggle in a 20-something-year-old husband and wife. The woman is pregnant and ready to give birth. Authorities say once the couple crossed into the Valley, the smugglers held them for ransom. More than $4,000 was squeezed out of the Houston family. A family member drove down to Pharr, where she filed a report with police.

Investigators tracked the money transfers to San Juan. Police there took over the case. They tracked down several leads, and 10 hours later with state and federal help, authorities located the couple at a home in McAllen.

Six people inside were arrested. Four men and two women were taken into custody. They're now in San Juan waiting to go before a judge. As for the victims, the woman is at the hospital for observation. Her husband is with police.

Police say the group used stash houses throughout the Valley. This one sits in the middle of a quiet McAllen neighborhood.

The alleged kidnappers rented half of a duplex on Ebony Avenue. They arrived four or five months ago.

“We got to be more careful of our neighbors I guess,” says a woman who lives nearby.

Police found six kidnappers inside the duplex Thursday morning.

“We went outside and saw all the police, but, really, we don't know what was happening,” says the neighbor.

Police say the kidnappers held two people from Mexico ransom. They moved the victims between stash houses for more than a week.

“I didn't expect it to be this close,” says says the neighbor.

Jose Gaona says this is something you'd expect to happen in Mexico.

“I go to Reynosa a whole lot; I see it on the streets over there,” says Gaona.

He learned Thursday morning it's happening on both sides of the border, even on quiet streets where children walk home.

“It kind of puts a different opinion in my mind because I have a teenage daughter and young kids here,” says Gaona.

Now he knows it's happening on his block so he'll pay closer attention to his neighbors.

The San Juan Police Department says the smugglers may be connected to the cartels. Police say the cartels paid the suspects to kidnap people, hold them hostage and demand money from their relatives.

In September, one group of criminals stole a group of people from another group. Their kidnappers held them for ransom day after day.

“Once they have them on this side, it’s very common for cartel members to try to extort more money from relatives,” says Phil Jordan, former DEA supervisor in Dallas.

Mission police can't say if the cartels were involved here. Jordan is sure they were.

“Ninety-nine percent of these human smuggling cases are related to the cartels. It’s an extra way they make extra multi-thousands of dollars,” says Jordan.

San Juan police say the cartels paid people to hold a pregnant woman and her husband hostage at this home in McAllen. Officers rescued them just before the sun came up Thursday.

“We all know it's all run by certain organizations,” says Anthony Flores with the San Juan Police Department.

“I was told by somebody within the system the Zetas are more organized in your part of the country than the Gulf Cartel members,” says Jordan.

Jordan worked for 30 years in the DEA. He says human smuggling kidnappings are way up.

“It has been on the increase at an alarming rate because of the type of monies that are involved,” says Jordan.

He says the cartels charge illegals $4,000 to $5,000 to cross. That’s $50,000 if you cross 10 people. The criminals don’t stop there.

Officers say the kidnappers demanded more money from the pregnant woman's family in Houston.

“It appears the family was running out of money. They didn’t have the money to keep paying. They decided to go to the police,” says Jordan.

Jordan says most families are too afraid to go to the police. They believe the cartels will hurt their loved ones if they do.

“I would strongly recommend they get a hold of the authorities; otherwise, they are risking the lives of those individuals,” says Jordan.

The suspects are all facing state felony charges of aggravated kidnapping.

Jordan says ICE is usually involved in human smuggling cases. ICE officials say they've not been asked to assist in this investigation yet.


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