Maria was drifting off to sleep on the bedroom floor. She could hear women getting raped in the next room. But she didn't hear screams — she heard the laughter of male guards.
The women had been drugged, as had Maria when she walked into the house. The guards forced her to swallow a red liquid, and handed her some chalky white pills. She drank the liquid and tucked the pills in her cheek, but they were slowly dissolving. The drugs were beginning to deaden her senses.
Maria had arrived at the modest three-bedroom house in west Phoenix several days earlier in the back of a white van. She was one of about a dozen immigrants, along with her husband, who had hired coyotes to smuggle them into the United States. They each paid the human smugglers about $1,800 to guide them safely through the treacherous Arizona desert.
Their guides betrayed them. They delivered them to other coyotes, who were more vicious than their counterparts. The kidnappers demanded another $1,700 apiece from Maria and the others being held, including two young boys.
The armed guards had tried to lock Maria in the same room as the other women. She was gripped by fear as she watched one of the guards stripping off the women's clothes.
Maria's husband argued with the kidnappers, telling them that she was sick, that he needed to keep an eye on her. Rather than hassle with a couple of the pollos (smugglers' slang for their cargo), the guards allowed them to stay together.
The smugglers stashed her and the men in the master bedroom.
When it was safe, she pulled the pills from her mouth and gave them to her husband. He slipped them into the pocket of his whitewashed jeans.
She looked around the bare bedroom at the men sitting on the floor. They were tired and worn. There was a large piece of plywood nailed over the window; a deadbolt on the door, locked from the outside.
There was no escape.
The pollos had come from poverty-stricken towns in Mexico and Guatemala in search of a better existence. Maria later said in an interview that she and her husband had hoped to find work. Back home in Mexico, jobs were scarce, and the lucky few who found them earned a meager 100 pesos (less than $7.80) for a full day's work.
The promise of a living wage is what drove them to walk through the desert for eight days, crawl through tunnels, and move from camp to camp, car to car, and from one band of coyotes to another within the same smuggling operation.
Now the kidnappers demanded that the victims come up with large ransoms. Captives called families back home or relatives in Arizona, pleading for money they knew they probably didn't have. Days went by as Maria's family worked to come up with more cash. The impatient guards threatened to beat their victims and dump their dead bodies in the desert.
Terrified and confused, Maria was allowed to leave the room only when it was her turn to help cook for the guards or to clean the house. The women talked quietly while they prepared meals for the hostages — a bean burrito, a few ramen noodles, or a boiled egg, split among four people. The immigrants weren't given anything to drink; they slurped water from a bathroom sink.
The captives had no idea that a team of police detectives, analysts, and U.S. immigration agents had begun a rescue mission to release them and arrest their kidnappers. An anonymous caller had tipped off Phoenix police about the home where the illegal immigrants were being held. The tip was passed on to members of a force called IIMPACT (Illegal Immigration Prevention Apprehension Co-op Team).
Investigators spent three days deciphering the tipster's information before finally pinpointing the house. A SWAT team then raided the house, arrested four suspected kidnappers, and rescued the hostages, including Maria.
"The looks on their faces, they just lit up," Phoenix Police Sergeant Harry Reiter, who supervises IIMPACT detectives, says of the rescued hostages. "They didn't care that [they would have to] go back south of the border — they just wanted out of the kidnappers' hold."
The pollos were taken into police custody, given food and beverages, and interviewed by detectives.
When it was her turn, Maria tugged nervously at the sleeves of her shirt as she answered the detectives' questions. Her voice was barely audible, and she stared at the floor of the small cubicle. Her answers were devoid of detail, but the detective extracted information from her to build a case against the coyotes. They spoke in Spanish as a reporter listened.
"Did they have guns?" the investigator asked Maria.
"What did they look like?"
She pointed to the gun strapped to the detective's waist. "Square, like yours."
"Did they assault you?" he asked, after she told him that the guards raped the other women.
She shook her head. "No."
"Are you sure?" he pressed.
She nodded, just barely.
Finally, the immigrants were turned over to federal immigration agents. A select few, needed to testify against their captors, eventually would be granted temporary visas and released to family.
Maria and her husband were not among them. They were locked in a holding tank, awaiting deportation.
Phoenix is labeled the kidnapping capital of the United States today because of drug smuggling — and human smuggling — out of Mexico.
"Kidnapping capital" is a catchphrase used by Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and other elected officials to alarm voters into buying the get-tough-on-illegals policies they're selling. But it's the smuggled immigrants — not the general public — who are overwhelmingly the primary victims.
In 2008, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, 368 reported kidnappings occurred in Phoenix, up from 160 in 1999. Almost all the abductions were inside the smuggling world. In 2008, IIMPACT detectives worked 63 kidnapping cases, investigated 49 drop houses, and arrested 129 human smugglers.