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

Over the weekend, Garza went to Western Union two or three times a day. She testified that at least $20,000 went through her hands, with most of it going to Spezzia and some to the families of ­runners.

On Saturday, January 6, Garza was having trouble with a particular transaction at Western Union because there was a problem with a specific name. She tried calling Spezzia but couldn't get ahold of him. Later that day, when Garza finally saw Spezzia, he told her something had gone wrong at a drop-off and that the man who'd been smuggled had run off, so they nabbed a family member and were keeping him at the Howard Johnson Inn.

Two days later, she was in the hotel room with Spezzia and Elmer when Spezzia had Danilo on the phone. Spezzia told her to step outside.

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.

It was cold that day, so Garza waited in the car. About half an hour later, Spezzia joined her.

"Charles said that he had burned him on his arm," Garza testified. "He had a smile on his face."

That evening, Spezzia and Garza slept at a Palace Inn motel to get some alone time because Spezzia's brother and his girlfriend had been fighting. Before going to sleep, Spezzia told Garza he was scared but that it would all be over the next day.

Danilo had already begun working with police and federal immigration agents that morning trying to rescue Elmer. Danilo had given the agents Spezzia's phone number, and they traced it to his apartment.

Spezzia and Garza were pulling out of the Windjammer parking lot in a blue Mercury when suddenly a police car appeared. Spezzia turned the corner into the Howard Johnson's and cops swarmed all around with guns drawn. Spezzia and Garza were arrested in the parking lot of the hotel, where police had discovered Elmer alone in the bathroom.The only shirt Elmer had with him was a red, white and blue soccer jersey with "U.S.A." written across the chest.

Later that day, federal immigration agents initiated deportation proceedings against Elmer and Miguel and placed the brothers inside a holding facility for nearly three months before releasing them with instructions to check in regularly.

Elmer and Miguel have disappeared. The two might still be in Houston; they might not. No one seems to know for certain.

A member of a Houston social services organization who handles immigration cases told the Houston Press that he referred Elmer and Miguel to trauma counseling as a requirement for assistance in their immigration matter. Suddenly, however, the two brothers vanished more than a year ago and the worker has not heard from them since.

At the time, Elmer and Miguel were trying to obtain U-visas, which authorize noncitizens to stay in the United States provided they've suffered physical or emotional abuse as the result of a crime and have been helpful with the investigation and prosecution of the crime. The trauma counseling was suggested to Elmer and Miguel to show the government that they had in fact suffered emotional harm after Elmer was taken hostage.

When asked about the status of Elmer and Miguel's immigration cases and for the names of the attorneys representing the two brothers, ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said that due to a certain "sensitivity" surrounding the case, she could not give the Press any information, and she directed the Press to file a freedom of information request. Several days later, Houston's ICE spokesman Greg Palmore said that there is no indication in the case file that either Elmer or Miguel have split town or decided to flee to avoid their pending immigration hearing. Palmore says that as far as he can tell from the file, both men are still awaiting their day in court.

As for Garza, these days she is focused on raising her children and getting her life back on track. She asked the Press not to reveal her location and declined to say much about her days riding shotgun with Spezzia. When first asked for an interview, she said, "This isn't anything that's going to land me in a body bag, is it?"

Garza says she no longer has any contact with Spezzia.

"I have kids and I'm not trying to put them in any kind of endangerment," she says. "We all made a mistake and that's all there really is to it. I'm just trying to move on with my life."

These days, Spezzia calls home a cell inside Big Sandy federal penitentiary, a little more than a two-hour drive from Lexington, Kentucky. But unlike the illegal immigrants he was convicted of harboring, no amount of money will set him free. He is at the front end of his 27-year sentence, which he is appealing. His attorney, John Friessel, declined to comment and asked that the Press not contact Spezzia or his family.

During his weeklong jury trial, Spezzia never took the stand. The only glimpse jurrors got of his side of the story was through the testimony of ICE agent Reginald Buchanan, who interviewed Spezzia shortly after Spezzia's arrest.

Spezzia told Buchanan that a man called Negro Banbone picked Spezzia up on that Saturday in January, saying he was going to deliver an illegal immigrant to a family but was not comfortable going alone. Banbone offered Spezzia $1,000 of the $1,800 fee, so Spezzia went along. Spez­zia told Buchanan that he was involved but his role was minimal, and that Banbone and others were the ringleaders.

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