When the phone rang Tuesday at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in Washington, D.C., the person calling from Florida said a loved one was being held prisoner at a home in Arizona.
That house was in Chandler, according to information someone in the home was able to relay to their family member via cell phone, and more than one person was being held against their will in what authorities believe was a violent human smuggling situation in a part of the Valley not used to drop house activity.
Federal officials contacted the Arizona Department of Public Safety, whose officers began conducting surveillance on the house near Chandler Heights Boulevard and Arizona Avenue, a new one-story home in an upscale neighborhood next door to a park. After executing a search warrant Wednesday afternoon at the home with the DPS SWAT team, DPS’ Illegal Immigration Prevention and Apprehension Team arrested six suspects — all Mexican nationals — and discovered 10 victims — all Guatemalan nationals — being held in rooms throughout the house, including a woman locked inside a bathroom. The victims that included eight males and two women and at least two teenagers had been held in the home for about two weeks.
It was an unlikely location for a drop house, according to Bart Graves, a DPS spokesman. The trend of uncovering drop houses usually happens more often in the West Valley — it is unusual for such a home to emerge in the East Valley, he said.
“This is an upper middle-class neighborhood,” Graves said. “There were all kinds of things going on. A lot of people think drop houses are just in poor neighborhoods, and many of them are, but they can be found anywhere.”
The victims, who paid about $3,500 each to be smuggled into the U.S., were going to be placed into some kind of forced or slave labor situation, and the two women likely were going to be forced into prostitution, Graves said.
The six suspects, whose names were not available, were arrested on suspicion of kidnapping, extortion and human smuggling and booked in Maricopa County’s Fourth Avenue jail. They were holding the victims for ransom, and weapons were confiscated during the raid.
Illegal immigration shift
Graves said that the number of drop houses seen by the IMPACT team, a task force of federal, state and local law enforcement officers led by DPS, has been considerably lower within the last year among Mexican nationals, citing a slow economy and Arizona’s crackdown on activity involving illegal immigration, including the controversial SB 1070 legislation.
“We’re beginning to see more victims in drop houses being from Central America,” Graves said. “The smugglers pitch a story to them on how good life is in America, how they can get better jobs, and that entices them to come here. Then, we’d get a report from someone in a West Valley neighborhood saying they noticed a woman running around the neighborhood half-naked thinking they escaped from a drop house. We’d investigate it, and we’d discover that they’re from Central America.
“But, we’re finding out that the smugglers are becoming more security conscious,” Graves added. “They take away peoples’ cell phones, and they’re keeping them inside the houses so they can’t escape.”
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