No Honest Players Among Human Smugglers
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.
"These guys are the worst of the worst criminals," says U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Special Agent in Charge Sean McElroy, who oversees ICE's smuggling division in Houston.
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.
Sometimes smuggling schemes involve federal agents. In July, Border Patrol agent Jesus Miguel Huizar pled guilty to conspiring to smuggle more than 100 illegal immigrants, at $350 a head, through a checkpoint, and had to forfeit his El Paso home, used as a stash house, to the government. In January, former Border Patrol agent David Cruz and his wife pled guilty to conspiracy charges, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Sergio Garza was arrested in Laredo for his suspected role in helping illegal immigrants into the United States.
Most smuggling organizations are loose networks that lack the clear-cut hierarchy traditionally seen with the major drug cartels, says McElroy. And there are seldom any Robin Hoods. It's all about the money.
McElroy says today's prices range from $1,000 to $2,000 to bring someone up from Mexico, and between $4,000 and $6,000 from South America. And when you consider that smugglers are bringing in anywhere from a few dozen to more than a hundred immigrants a week and "are probably not paying taxes," says McElroy, the dollars add up quickly.
Over the last few years, ICE has seen an increase in violence. Agents hardly ever work a case where guns or some form of torture are not employed.
"It's not unusual for us to go into places and find ropes and chains," McElroy says. "We get calls from relatives telling us that they've been told that their family member is going to be killed or maimed or tied up outside in extreme weather conditions. I mean, we've heard it all. Whether they're doing it or not, they're saying they're going to do it, and in some cases they do, like in the Spezzia case."
In the mainstream, oftentimes there's not much sympathy for illegal immigrants, and smuggling crimes are viewed as victimless. After all, the immigrant does pay the smuggler to get him across the border.
"The average American citizen does not understand the complexities of unauthorized migration," says University of Houston professor Nestor Rodriguez. "They say, 'Well, that's what you get for doing things illegally.' But the reality is that these are people who are trying to survive and help their families survive and take a large risk to do it. People should care [about smuggling crimes] because this is the suffering of humans and Americans have always stood for fair play and humanitarian values. And also because it happens on our land and this is not the type of behavior that we want to allow here."
Most smuggling crimes, however, go unreported to the police. Victims are afraid to speak up for fear they will be deported — often considered a worse fate than whatever bodily or mental injuries were incurred.
"A lot of the time," says McElroy, "if they had called us in the first place, some bad things may not have happened. We work closely with [local nonprofit groups] and try to stress: Come and report crimes like these. Because it's not worth having your relative held hostage."
Jimenez agrees that most illegal immigrants are still afraid to report smugglers to the police, but slowly that is changing. She likens the situation to food poisoning at a restaurant. Once you get sick from eating the food, do you go back, do you sue or do you simply disappear?
"I think people are much more aware of the consequences and are therefore more willing to denounce the coyote, especially when they're being abused," Jimenez says. "Many years ago it was much more difficult because [the smugglers] were people you knew, the hometown guides, and you didn't want to expose anyone because ultimately you'd be sent back and lose the money you paid."
Miguel was loading trucks for roughly $60 a week near his hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, when he decided to try to join his younger brother, Elmer, in the United States. Elmer had made the journey nearly a year earlier to find work to support his sick mother. After arriving in Houston in January 2006, Elmer took a landscaping job and sent home as much money as he could. After a month, his mother died, but Elmer decided to stay.
It was November 2006 when Miguel began heading north. With 1,500 Lempira — a little less than $80 — in his pocket, and a small dose of how-to knowledge from his brother Elmer, Miguel jumped on a bus heading into Guatemala.
After more than a month trekking through mountains, jungles and deserts in Guatemala and Mexico, Miguel stowed away on the last of six cargo trains he took during his journey, finally chugging into Nuevo Laredo.
Miguel found refuge at an immigrant flophouse and took a job selling newspapers. For about three weeks, he lived and worked along the border. On the job, Miguel met a fellow Honduran who introduced him to a man named Luis. For $1,600, Luis told Miguel, he could arrange for Miguel's safe passage to Houston. The smugglers later raised the fee to $1,800. Miguel then called Elmer, whose friend told Miguel that he had the money. When Miguel relayed this to Luis, the deal began to roll into motion.
To smugglers, penniless immigrants are not worth much money up front; they are almost like commodity futures. Their real value lies down the road, and only if they can protect their merchandise through whatever means are necessary and then cash in.
It was just days after New Year's 2007 when Luis took Miguel to his house, where four other migrants hoping to get across the border were waiting for the guide to show up. The coyote was a Hispanic man who went by the name "El Negro." He loaded the migrants into his van and set out for the riverbank. There, the group crouched by the Rio Grande for more than an hour before making their move.
Just after Miguel and the others rushed across the water into the United States, border patrol agents spotted them and began the chase. The six men scattered. Two migrants disappeared for good, but Miguel, El Negro and two others regrouped and began walking toward Houston.
After eight hours, the men reached a train station and again, Miguel found himself stowing away on a freight train. An hour later, they hopped off at mile marker 58 and El Negro used a cell phone to call for a ride. Miguel spent his first night in the United States sleeping in a dirt bed in the nearby brush.
The next afternoon, Spezzia and two others showed up in a black Ford Expedition. Miguel and his traveling companions climbed in. He and the two other immigrants lay crammed on top of each other in the back as they rode for three hours until reaching the Howard Johnson Inn near Clear Lake that Friday afternoon.
Across town that night, Elmer's cell phone rang. It was El Negro. Elmer did not answer, but the coyote left a message saying that he was going to kill Miguel if Elmer did not pick up his brother.
The next morning, El Negro called again and this time Elmer answered. They agreed to meet at a gas station near the corner of Beltway 8 and South Post Oak. Elmer called his friend Danilo for a ride.
Elmer was scared; he had only $500, a far cry from the $1,800 he needed to free his brother, and he could not get ahold of another friend who'd said he'd lend Elmer the cash.
Elmer and Danilo hopped into Danilo's 2001 Ford Windstar and started toward the gas station. Along the way, Danilo stopped and picked up two men he worked with. They thought that if they showed up with more people, the odds were better that everything would run smoothly.
At the gas station, Elmer's plan was to get Miguel, give the smugglers what money he had and work out a way to pay the rest later. He walked over to the SUV with Miguel and Spezzia inside and opened Miguel's door.
Elmer testified in court that he tried to talk to Spezzia but Spezzia would not let him. Instead, Spezzia grabbed Elmer, took a pistol out of his waistband and pressed it into Elmer's stomach. Miguel jumped out of the car and began running. Spezzia forced Elmer inside the Expedition as they sped away from the gas station. Inside the car, Spezzia hit Elmer across the right eye with the gun; blood spattered across Elmer's shirt.
Meanwhile, Miguel quickly jumped into the van with Danilo and they chased after the SUV, trying to write down its license plate number. But Danilo lost them when the smugglers drove onto Beltway 8 and cruised through the EZ Pass Lane of a tollbooth. Danilo didn't follow. He was afraid of getting pulled over by police, detained and possibly deported. Stunned and frightened, Miguel and Danilo did not speak on the drive back to Danilo's home that morning.
Over the next several days, Danilo spoke on the phone with the smugglers several times. They set new deadlines and kept raising the fee — $2,300, $3,000 and finally up to $3,300 — threatening to beat Elmer and chop off his fingers one by one until they reached his head.
On Monday evening, January 8, 2007, three days after Elmer had been kidnapped, Danilo called the Houston Police Department asking for officers to save his friend's life.
Charles Spezzia, known as "Charlie" to his fellow smugglers, was born in Chicago. He is described by people who've met the black-haired, brown-eyed man as looking much younger than his 26 years, almost like a teenager. He stands at five foot nine inches and weighs more than 200 pounds.
Spezzia has a criminal record, but it's rather unimpressive. Nothing violent, at least. He had been charged with stealing a car and driving on a suspended driver's license, according to Harris County court records, but that was about it.
Prosecutors say they never determined exactly how long he was in the immigrant smuggling game, but his ex-girlfriend Patricia Garza testified he had been doing it for years by the time they met in 2006. She said he'd told her his father was a smuggler who had been deported to Mexico for plying his profession and had introduced Spezzia to the business.
Prosecutors would have had a tougher time getting a conviction against Spezzia if not for Garza, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregg Costa. She testified against Spezzia, which in turn helped her get a lighter sentence of only 11 months in prison.
About a year before police arrested them, the two met at Sugar's Cabaret, a strip club where Garza was dancing under the name "Sasha." At the time, she was working part-time and pulling in about $3,000 a month, though she said in court that she had a negative balance in her bank account.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But to the jury, none of this mattered. Garza's testimony, coupled with the wrenching accounts from Miguel and Elmer, was enough for them to convict Spezzia.
"It was more emotional than most federal criminal trials," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Costa. Miguel and Elmer "told their story, why they came and what happened when they did, and I think most people in the court were moved by that. It's a very human story and a tragic story."
More damning than all the testimony, however, says Costa, were the photographs taken of Elmer after his rescue, undeniable proof of the brutality he suffered.
The jury saw pictures of Elmer sitting in the hotel room wearing a blood-stained shirt. They saw other pictures of his charred forearms and his mangled foot. It was too much. It was enough.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.