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Kidnapped, smuggled and worse

A Mexican mother wanted only a better life for her daughter, 4, but the trip north took a terrible turn.

March 08, 2010|By Anna Gorman

The smuggler threatened to kill 4-year-old Nayli if he didn't receive $11,500 from her parents -- immediately.

He had sneaked the girl across the Mexican border nearly a month earlier and now was holding her for ransom somewhere near Los Angeles.

"Mommy, I don't want to be here anymore," Nayli said through tears when the smuggler put her on the phone.

Her mother, Yaneth, could hear terror in her daughter's voice. "OK, mija, I am coming," she answered in Spanish before the smuggler hung up. Yaneth was desperate. She had hired the coyote but now he was demanding more than she'd agreed to pay. She didn't have enough money. And she was still in Mexico, after border agents caught her as she was trying to cross into the U.S.

Yaneth feared she would never see her daughter again.

Though Nayli's young age makes her case unique, kidnapping illegal immigrants for ransom is common as they cross the border into Southern California -- a harrowing testament to the violent nature of smuggling rings.

Smugglers make deals and break them. They hold men, women and children in locked stash houses, while using violence and threats to extort money from their relatives. The kidnapped immigrants have been beaten, starved, raped, even killed, said Miguel Unzueta, who oversees the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Los Angeles.

Independent coyotes still operate all along the border, but law enforcement officers say highly sophisticated criminal networks and drug trafficking cartels have taken over much of the trade.

"These organizations are ruthless," Unzueta said. "You don't know what you are buying into when you decide to be smuggled into the United States. . . . It's a huge, huge, tremendous risk."

In January alone, law enforcement officers discovered "drop houses" in Lancaster, Lynwood and Reseda and rescued dozens of illegal immigrants being held against their will. When agents arrived at the Lancaster house, a suspected smuggler was beating one of the immigrants. The women held in Lynwood said guards tried to exchange sex for blankets.

Los Angeles Police Lt. Carlos Velez, whose detectives handle as many as 50 coyote kidnapping cases each year, said immigrants are trusting their lives -- and those of their children -- to criminals looking only to make a profit.

"The motivating factor for them is greed," he said. "They want the money. They are not concerned about the safety of the individual."

Yaneth agreed to tell her story on the condition that she and her daughter be referred to by only their middle names because she still fears the smuggler and his associates. Her story was also detailed in a police report and an affidavit filed in federal court and was confirmed by the immigration agents who investigated the case.

Yaneth, 29, knew the journey was risky. But her husband was already in the U.S. and she wanted her family back together.

She and her husband first crossed illegally in 2007, leaving their two children with their grandparents in Mexico. She talked to them every day, but missed them too much. Yaneth returned to Mexico the next year.

But back in Guerrero state, the drug war was escalating and Yaneth didn't feel safe anymore. She worried about her family getting killed, her children getting kidnapped. "It was really ugly," she said.

Through a neighbor, she found a smuggler, Jose Luis Martinez-Ocampo, a legal permanent resident who agreed in May 2009 to take her and her children to the U.S. for $4,500. They would have three months to pay.

They flew to Tijuana and planned to cross at the beginning of June. Yaneth and her son, who was 11, would trek through the mountains. Her daughter would cross in the smuggler's car -- what Yaneth believed would be a faster, safer passage.

"I thought it would be just one day," she said. "And even that was too much time." On June 1, Yaneth took a deep breath and handed her daughter to the smuggler. Nayli was carrying her favorite doll and pretended to sleep in the back seat. They crossed without being detected.

But Yaneth and her son were caught by border agents.

In the U.S., Martinez-Ocampo was demanding additional payment, threatening Yaneth's husband and refusing to release Nayli. Yaneth hired a new smuggler and agreed to pay him $4,000 to take her and her son across the border. On June 18, Yaneth's son went first, making it to the U.S. and reuniting with his father. The next week, after another failed attempt to cross, Yaneth reached Martinez-Ocampo on his cellphone.

He was angry that she had hired a different smuggler and demanded an additional $7,000. She said he threatened to make her daughter "disappear."

"Many, many things went through my mind . . . like never, ever seeing her again," she said. "I wanted to come and look for her myself, knock on door after door looking for her."

Yaneth finally crossed the border with a coyote at the end of June.

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