Friday, March 2, 2012

Inside human smuggling: Drop house horrors

By Sybil Hoffman

PHOENIX -- They look like any other home on your block. But inside Valley drop houses, people are often blindfolded, left barefoot and tortured.

In fact the reports are horrifying.

Police have told 3TV during various raids over the years, "We knocked on the door, inside the house we discovered approximately 108 illegal aliens. It appears to be one of the most severe cases of assault and extortion. We found 27 people total people within three bedrooms of the upstairs."

It's become a harsh reality. Violent human smuggling rings setting up shop right in the middle of Valley neighborhoods.
According to Bart Graves with the Department of Public Safety, "In most cases, smugglers will rent a house with a garage and they will take their human cargo in the dead of night and close the garage door."

Smugglers are very strategic. According to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, drop houses are usually located near highways like Interstate 17 or Arizona 85 because it's a direct route from Mexico. They also prefer to be in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods in order to "blend in." Once smugglers find a home, the property can become a house of horrors.

"They will bring them into a house, blindfold them after picking them up in the desert, they'll have them stripped to their underwear, remove their shoes, put them all in the same room, board off the rooms so they literally don't know if it's day or night," Graves said. "These same people don't care if these folks are fed, they will beat them if they don't cooperate, if they show any kind of attitude, if they try to escape."

Drop houses were becoming so prevalent, in 2007 local, state and federal police agencies combined forces creating IIMPACT. The mission was to dismantle human smuggling operations.

According to ICE Special Agent Matt Allen, in 2008, "We had well over 200 drop houses a year, last year I think we were in the neighborhood of 50."

Those caught running drop houses are getting slapped wtih significant sentences.

Carlos Alvarez Espinoza is currently serving more than 100 years in prison.

"I think that sends a very important message to smugglers in Mexico that if you are involved in violent human smuggling in the Phoenix metro area, you're going to go to jail and if you go to jail here, you're going to go for a long time," Allen said.

As long as Arizona continues to be a main corridor for human smugglers, they will no doubt find new ways to operate.

"They're actually depositing their human cargo in a river bed or somewhere in the desert where they're picked up by the driver that's going to take them to Michigan, New York. Montana, where they're going, we're seeing that now, more often," Graves said.

If you suspect human smuggling or drop house activity in your neighborhood, go to

For more background on Alvarez Espinoza's case, visit

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