By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Bound and gagged, Elmer Nuñez-Rodriguez watched helplessly as a stocky, dark-haired man charged toward him with a phone in one hand and a yellow claw hammer in the other. With one swing, the man drove the hammer into Elmer's foot, threw Elmer onto the bed and ripped off the duct tape covering Elmer's mouth. The man grabbed an iron and pressed the steaming hot metal into each of Elmer's forearms, searing raw pink V shapes into Elmer's dark-colored flesh.
On the other end of the phone, Elmer's friend Danilo Rosales heard Elmer screech in pain and cry out in Spanish, "Get the money because otherwise, they are going to kill me."
The man walked outside to where his girlfriend waited. He was smiling.
The next morning, the man with the hammer, Charles Spezzia, told Elmer that it was his last day to live. Elmer's hands were untied so he could wash up. While bathing, Elmer heard his kidnappers walk outside. Terrified and sitting in the tub, the baby-faced 22-year-old began to pray.
Across town, Danilo was scrambling to find the money. Three days earlier, the fee for Elmer's brother, Miguel, whom smugglers had brought up from Mexico, was $1,800. Elmer had only been able to raise a fraction of that amount. But when Elmer showed up at the drop spot, Miguel managed to escape, so Spezzia took Elmer hostage in exchange and was keeping him at the Howard Johnson Inn just off Interstate 45 near Clear Lake.
Spezzia and his smuggling partners had been calling Danilo and Miguel, threatening to kill Elmer unless they came up with the fee, which the smugglers kept raising every day. The tab was now an impossible $3,300.
Danilo called everyone he knew begging for a loan. Elmer's family in Honduras began selling off whatever they could.
Neither Elmer nor his brother Miguel is a celebrity or the son of a wealthy family, the type of person the average American might expect to be the target of kidnappers. As U.S. border security continues to tighten, more and more people living in Mexico, Central and South America desperate to enter the United States at any cost turn to these people smugglers, or coyotes, to guide them.
It is the ultimate collision of two contradictory truths: life is better north of the U.S. border, but to get there migrants must risk being tortured or killed by the only ones who can get them there. And just like with the drug trade, deals go bad, turning U.S. streets and neighborhoods into crime scenes.
After hearing Elmer scream, Danilo and Miguel knew they couldn't get the money fast enough. Panic set in. They had to get help. Even if it meant risking their own freedom and possible deportation, they knew what they had to do.
When it comes to people smugglers, there are no honest players. They carry guns, raise prices at a whim, extort money and have little or no sympathy for their human cargo.
But, of course, things are rarely so cut and dried.
"You have to look at it as services that are being offered to a community who needs them because legally people cannot qualify to enter the country," says Houston community activist Maria Jimenez. "No one wants to risk their lives in order to come through, so if you could simply establish a system where people could enter flexibly, you would deal a very strong blow to the smugglers. But as the border has become more fortified, smugglers have become increasingly more important. They are a necessary evil."
Houston is a major hub for immigrant smugglers. They flow north from the border up the Texas highways and country roads, and use Houston as a garrison to hold illegal immigrants while waiting for payment before sending them off to relatives in cities across the country.
Smugglers stash illegal immigrants throughout Houston in hotels, motels, trailer parks and private homes.
"It's not unusual for us to get three or four calls a week," says McElroy, "where we're responding and going into places that are basically housing between 15 to 30 individuals who have been smuggled. We get a lot of call-outs and we do a lot of federal prosecutions."
In February, for instance, five Mexican nationals and one Honduran pled guilty in federal court after ICE agents found them holding 44 illegal immigrants at a house in southeast Houston and another 13 at a nearby business. In April, Fernando Lemus-Gonzalez was sentenced to 30 years in prison on an eight-count indictment for "transporting undocumented aliens." He was smuggling eight illegal immigrants through Hebbronville when he lost control of his SUV and crashed, killing five of his passengers.
Mauricio Briones-Hernandez was also traveling through Hebbronville with a dozen illegals in his car when he crashed, resulting in an immigrant's death and a prison sentence for Briones-Hernandez of more than 12 years.
In June, two Mexican nationals and a Brazilian pled guilty to conspiracy to harbor and transport illegal immigrants. They were accused of stashing 15 people at a home in the 10,000 block of Sela. One of the illegal immigrants found there said a smuggler had hit him with a baseball bat. The smugglers were also accused of holding six other people, including a six-year-old boy, at a house on the 2800 block of Hayes Street.