High Profits and Misery Meet at Door of Smugglers’ Stash Houses

Stash houses are at the center of a smuggling chain that moves hundreds of thousands of people a year across the border and into the United States.

LAREDO, Tex. — Two weeks ago, a police officer on a routine patrol here was approached by six men frantically waving for him to stop. The men, all undocumented immigrants, told a harrowing tale.

With the help of smugglers, the men had crossed the Rio Grande a few days earlier. After being shuttled from one house to the next, they ended up at a mobile home in central Laredo, a city of 250,000 mostly Latino residents along the Mexican border. Unable to pay the smugglers the amount demanded for their passage, the men were threatened and locked in the house without food or water. They kicked out a back window to escape.

Hours later, when a squad of United States Border Patrol agents and local police officers descended on the mobile home, one man was still there. He said he was waiting to be taken to his next destination since he had paid his first installment of smuggling fees — $2,500. He expected to pay an additional $3,500 down the road.

The fees are part of a human smuggling business along the Southwest border with Mexico that is worth an estimated $500 million annually. Stash houses, like the mobile home here, are at the center of a smuggling chain that moves hundreds of thousand of people a year across the border and into the United States.

Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Over the last two years, the authorities have raided almost 200 stash houses in the Laredo area alone. Nearly 1,300 migrants — the vast majority of them poor and desperate — have been removed from the homes and arrested, according to the Border Patrol and Homeland Security Investigations, a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“These are just the ones we know about,” said Timothy J. Tubbs, the deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations here.

Surrounded by a flat expanse of wild brush and cactus, Laredo is home to the largest land port of entry in the United States, with upward of two million trucks crossing annually. It is also the largest border crossing for goods traded between the United States and Mexico; more than $557 billion in imports and exports travel through the city each year, according to Laredo Economic Development Corporation.

And the city serves as the southern terminus of Interstate 35, which bisects Middle America in its path to Minnesota, connecting to other major interstates — making it an ideal entry point for smuggling.

Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

The stash houses are essential way stations on those smuggling routes — ones that Laredo’s mayor, Pete Saenz, calls a dark stain on the city.

“It’s disturbing and illegal,” Mr. Saenz said. “They endanger not just the lives of people in the stash houses, but the lives of those around them as well.”

The buildup of thousands of border agents, miles of fencing, high-tech sensors and immigration checkpoints under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — which is now at the center of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration — has forced migrants who are desperate to escape violence at home to turn to smugglers to enter the United States. The smugglers themselves are held financially hostage by drug cartels that charge them thousands of dollars to operate on their turf.

A stash house can be any kind of domicile, anywhere.

In Laredo, they have been found in low-income and working-class neighborhoods, as well as in some affluent areas. They include a local motel next door to a Border Patrol station.

“You can be in a neighborhood where kids are playing in the streets, and there could be a stash house next door,” said Jason D. Owens, the acting chief of Border Patrol’s Laredo sector, whose office mapped stash houses that the federal and local authorities have raided. “It’s literally the warehousing of human beings — like they were packages to be shipped off.”

The agency’s map also shows stash houses in Mexico. But on the streets of one border city, Nuevo Laredo, few people were willing to talk about the issue. Troops patrolling the streets declined to comment.

Tens of thousands of homes, hotels and other buildings are used as stash houses, extending from the border deep into the United States. They house migrants until smugglers can arrange transportation — usually the back of tractor-trailers, where people cannot be immediately detected — through Border Patrol checkpoints.

The migrants are then delivered to another stash house, where they are detained by smugglers who demand fees before getting them to their next destination.

Migrants who are unable to pay are threatened and, in many cases, assaulted. Some women have been raped, according to federal court records, interviews with law enforcement officials and statements from undocumented immigrants. Migrants are also vulnerable to so-called rip crews, who kidnap them from the stash house of a rival group of smugglers and extort them or their families for money, federal court documents and Homeland Security Investigations records show.

Stash houses usually lack running water or air-conditioning. Up to 100 people are often crammed into a single house, waiting for smugglers to move them.

Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

“The conditions are appalling,” Mr. Owens said. “You don’t know what you’re going to see when you go inside a stash house.”

During a raid of a stash house this month near Slaughter Park, a popular spot here for Little League baseball and soccer games, a New York Times reporter was allowed to look inside.

On the first floor of the two-story structure was a modestly furnished apartment with a television, a bicycle and toys. Border Patrol agents said that a family appeared to live downstairs — a common tactic that smuggling organizations use to mask their darker purpose.

Upstairs, the rooms reeked of urine. The windows were covered to prevent anyone from seeing in. The only pieces of furniture were uncovered mattresses on the floor, which was littered with clothing and water bottles. Ten migrant men and two people suspected of smuggling were taken into custody by the Border Patrol agents.

A man who lived next door but declined to give his name said he reported activity at the house because “people were going in and out like it was a Walmart.”

Ledgers that federal officials have found at numerous stash houses show that a typical operator is paid about $500 a week. Some are undocumented immigrants themselves, who run the houses for a discount on their own payments to smugglers. It usually takes about two people to run a stash house — feeding migrants, collecting their money and arranging transportation.

Stash houses have become such a problem that the state of Texas has opened a hotline for the public to report their locations for a reward of up to $2,500. Under Operation Crackdown — a program run by the state’s National Guard, Laredo and the Border Patrol — stash houses are demolished to prevent further use.

“We’re trying to deprive the criminal element of their ability to exploit these buildings,” Mr. Owens said during a ceremony to demolish a former stash house across the street from an elementary school.

Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

He said the Border Patrol’s intelligence unit, along with the local authorities and other federal agencies, have found dozens of stash houses by relying on interviews with migrants, tips from neighbors and surveillance by undercover agents.

Even so, Mr. Owens conceded that law enforcement is often a step behind smugglers who frequently jump from house to house to evade the authorities.

Yet that is often the best chance that officials have to catch smugglers as they move migrants among stash houses.

Before a raid over a week ago, just after midnight, a task force made up of federal agents and sheriffs’ deputies from Webb County, Tex., watched as a white sport utility vehicle made its way slowly down Concord Hills Boulevard, a thoroughfare in eastern Laredo.

Law enforcement officials in unmarked vehicles quickly surrounded the car. With guns drawn, they removed seven men hiding in the back. At the wheel was a 16-year old girl.

In an interview, one of the men arrested in the vehicle said he was from Veracruz State in Mexico. He told Border Patrol agents that he had crossed the Rio Grande by himself a few days earlier, and had neither paid smugglers for the trip nor stayed in a stash house.

But Border Patrol agents said it is all but impossible to cross the Rio Grande near Laredo without paying cartels that tightly control the Mexican side of the river. The man insisted he was afraid to be sent back to Nuevo Laredo, and asked to be deported to another location in Mexico.

The New York Times was asked not to identify the migrants by name, given the current smuggling investigation.

A second man in the car, who was also arrested, told a different story. He identified himself as the first man’s cousin, and said the two had crossed the river together and were picked up by smugglers soon afterward.

He said that they were among several men who had been moved to four different stash houses. They were coming from one when law enforcement agents stopped them.

In some cases, officials only find stash houses after the migrants are gone.

Responding to a call this month at a Motel 6, just off Interstate 35, the local police were met by three men who said they had been forcibly detained by smugglers who had extorted $9,000 from each of them.

One of the men said he and the two others had crossed the Rio Grande in July after paying $2,800 to smugglers in Mexico. The men were taken to several stash houses as they waited to be moved to San Antonio, where they would meet people who would drive them on the next leg of a journey that they were told would eventually end in Kentucky.

They wound up at the Motel 6, which was to be their last stop before San Antonio. There, the men said, they were put in a car and driven for two hours to a hotel that they were told was their destination.

Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

But one of the men recognized the hotel as the Motel 6 they had just left. As soon as they had the chance — one of the smugglers departed and another went into a bathroom — the three migrants fled to the front desk to call the police.

Lance Smith, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, said officials have raided the same Motel 6 multiple times. Typically, he said, the hotel’s employees will alert officials to suspicious activity — but that is not always the case with many of the low-budget motels along Interstate 35.

Mr. Smith said it was the same with many of the landlords of stash houses.

Some have called the authorities after learning that the home they rented out was used as a stash house. Others have been less helpful. Either way, it is rare for federal or local prosecutors to charge an owner with smuggling.

“It’s tough to prove knowledge,” Mr. Smith said. “I’m sure some of them know. But we just can’t prove that they know that the residence was used as a stash house.”

Mr. Owens, the acting chief of Border Patrol in Laredo, said that going after stash houses was crucial to dismantling the migrant smuggling rings that operate along the border.

During raids, agents seize documents such as ledgers, phones and Western Union receipts, which show the inner workings of the groups. They also seize money and, in some cases, the property.

Mr. Owens said he was under no illusion that the crackdown would stop landlords and others from renting out stash houses to migrant smugglers. Nor will it stop the smuggling itself.

“But not having the stash house increases their risk of getting caught,” Mr. Owens said. “We want to make it as difficult as we can for them to operate and put lives in danger.”

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