It started with a phone call. A woman was worried about her daughter and two grandchildren. They were supposed to arrive in Houston and they never arrived. When she called the Houston Police Department she was taking a great risk – but she knew her family was in danger. After all, she had paid a smuggler $15,000 to bring them here.
She had paid a smuggler to bring her family from Central America. Prior to crossing into the United States, her daughter and grandchildren, ages five and seven, had to risk going through Mexico. They had to risk kidnapping, robbery, sexual assault, extortion and even death. The Mexican drug cartels and even some government officials prey on the desperation of those who cross into their country on their way to their final destination – which may or may not be the United States. Mexico is the first obstacle for the thousands that make the attempt every year. Many never make it. When the woman’s family didn’t show up at the drop off destination, she received a call from the smuggler demanding an additional $13,000 if she wanted to see her family safely delivered to Chicago. She at least knew her daughter and grandchildren were alive.
The information the woman gave the Houston Police Department led them to a 1,284 square foot house on Alameda School Road in south Harris County. They set up surveillance on a Wednesday morning, March 19, 2014. About 10:00 a.m., they stopped two men in a vehicle leaving the house. While interrogating them, they noticed a semi-automatic weapon poking out from underneath the seat.
That stop led to the discovery of 115 men, women and children half naked living in a sea of filth in the boarded up house.
Investigators found the people, most believed to be from Central America, living in the cramped house with one barely working toilet. The windows were boarded up and all the doors were padlocked. Their clothes and shoes had been taken from them so that they could not escape. Some had been there for only a few days, some as long as a few weeks. They ranged in age from 5-47. The youngest two were the grandchildren of the woman who called the police.
In all, 99 men, 16 women (including one who was pregnant), and 19 juveniles were found in the stash house. They were held there while the smugglers demanded more money from their families. They were from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. They were on their way to places as varied as New York, Chicago and Georgia. All of them were in search of something better than what they left.
Now their fates are even more uncertain.
All of the people found in the house, except for the pregnant woman, were taken to detention centers where they were interviewed and checked out medically. The pregnant woman was taken first to the hospital. Three of the juveniles have been reunited with their families. The rest of the cases are being reviewed on a case by case basis as the U.S. Government and foreign officials in the four countries determine the circumstances that led to their discovery at the house.
The issue now for investigators is whether they will label this a case of human smuggling or trafficking. It appears obvious that all of this started off as a case of human smuggling, which is a crime against the United States, but smuggling cases can often turn into trafficking cases, which is a crime against a person. The latter provides a designation of victim and gives them additional avenues of redress, including the possibility of remaining in the United States. Victims of certain crimes may also be allowed to remain.
One investigator said that at least 12 of the people could be material witnesses against the five men who were arrested as the kidnappers and operators of the stash house. They were charged with a variety of federal offenses, including hostage taking, alien in possession of a firearm and conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens. As material witnesses, they could be allowed to remain in the United States under certain circumstances.
The special agent in charge of Houston’s Homeland Security Operations, Brian Moskowitz, says that the options for his department on how to deal with the situation are bound by federal law. “As horrific as some of these things are, you could be chained to a wall and beat,” he said. “But unless it meets the elements in the laws that [Congress has] passed, it’s not trafficking under the federal level and our hands are tied.”
In the end, most will likely end up deported back to where they started their long and horrific journey.