No Honest Players Among Human Smugglers

Illegal immigrants are subject to pain and death at the hands of their "rescuers" if they don't pay up in full

Born in Germany but a U.S. citizen, Garza, 24, dropped out of school after ninth grade. She was married when she met Spezzia and never divorced, but had separated from her husband. She had two children at the time and was pregnant with a third when she was arrested.

Garza did not know exactly how Spez­zia made his money, only that he frequently made business trips out of town. In October 2006, Garza's home burned down and she moved in with Spezzia at the Windjammer Apartments, less than a five-minute walk from the Howard Johnson Inn.

It wasn't until shortly after moving in with Spezzia that Garza got her first inkling as to what her boyfriend did for a living. One day in November, the two drove to McDonald's where Spezzia bought a noticeably large order of hamburgers and fries to take to some friends who were holding people at a Red Roof Inn off of I-45. When they arrived, Spezzia got out of the car and Garza heard him talking about the illegal immigrants holed up at the hotel. At the time, Spezzia didn't explain to Garza why the immigrants were there or what was really going on.

Immigrant smugglers held Elmer hostage for three days before torturing him with a hammer and iron.
Immigrant smugglers held Elmer hostage for three days before torturing him with a hammer and iron.
Jurors during the trial saw pictures of Elmer's wounds from being beaten by smugglers.
Jurors during the trial saw pictures of Elmer's wounds from being beaten by smugglers.

Several weeks later, Spezzia asked Garza to go on a run down south with him.

"He just asked me if I wanted to go," Garza testified. "I said, yes, I would go with him ... [He said] we were just going to go and pick up these people."

These people, of course, turned out to be smuggled ­illegal immigrants.

With Spezzia behind the wheel of a rented SUV, the two set out down the highway toward a ranch south of San Benito. During the six-hour drive, Garza peppered Spezzia with questions, wanting to know exactly how everything worked.

Spezzia told Garza that a coyote, also called a runner, brought the illegal immigrants across the border, eight at a time on average. The coyote would then call Spezzia and he would pick them up at a specified location. Garza said that Spezzia pointed out different spots where he'd picked up immigrants in the past.

Spezzia always drove rental cars, usually Expeditions but sometimes a Hummer or a Cadillac Escalade. He would typically go at night, and preferred it when it rained, telling Garza police usually wouldn't stop him in a downpour.

Most immigrants didn't pay until they were safe in Houston. Spezzia and his partners kept the immigrants in a hotel or inside Spezzia's apartment. From there, Spezzia or an associate would call the immigrants' friends or relatives and arrange a meeting spot.

The money was either paid in person at the drop-off or wired ahead through Western Union. The typical fee was $1,500, but it would go up the further south the immigrant came from. Spezzia kept a third of the money and would give the rest to the coyote because, as Garza testified, "they did all the work."

On the November night when Garza came along, Spezzia wheeled off the highway and down a dirt road onto the ranch, where he stopped and turned off the car lights. Eight immigrants and a runner broke from the brush and crammed into Spezzia's Expedition.

Spezzia was driving back toward Houston when a sheriff's patrol car drove up behind them near San Benito. Spezzia made a quick turn, opened the doors and his cargo scrambled out just as the deputy turned on his flashing lights and pulled over the SUV. Police questioned the pair for hours before setting them free. The two denied knowing anything, and neither the deputy nor Border Patrol agents who were called in ever found the coyote or any of the immigrants who fled into the night.

The encounter scared Garza, and she told Spezzia she never wanted anything to do with his business ever again. But that didn't last. Within months, she was helping him once more.

After the close call with the police near San Benito, Spezzia took a break from driving to South Texas to pick up illegal immigrants. It didn't stop him from running a stash house, though.

Garza came home to the Windjammer Apartments one day and found her bed in the living room and about 12 immigrants being kept inside the bedroom. They were there for four or five days before being released. Garza said Spezzia would play with a sawed-off shotgun in front of her in the apartment, and he told her he'd carry it into the bedroom to scare the immigrants. And when that load had left, a new one rolled in.

In late December, Spezzia resumed driving south to pick up coyotes and illegal immigrants. He kept them at the Howard Johnson Inn near his home. In just a few short weeks, Spezzia and his friends had picked up several loads. Miguel was part of one that second weekend of January 2007.

It was that same weekend that Garza began helping her boyfriend again. Spezzia's driver's license had expired and the employees at Western Union wouldn't let him pick up the money that families were sending to free their smuggled relatives. Spezzia had called Western Union, and a worker there told him that he had more than 1,000 transactions and they wanted to make sure the money wasn't illegal.

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