HOUSTON -- For more than a month, KHOU 11 News has been investigating the growing violence among smugglers. They're robbing each other -- not for money or drugs, but for illegal immigrants they can hold for ransom.
Two years ago, right in the middle of the day at Bissonnet and the Southwest Freeway, a shootout took place between two groups of criminals. They were fighting over human cargo.
“I mean, as with any criminal organization, the criminal enterprise is they're in it for the money,” said Sean McElroy. He is an Assistant Special Agent with the United States Department of Homeland Security and ICE.
In recent years, the Houston area has seen an increase of kidnappings and hostage-taking by groups of thieves who are literally trying to steal illegal immigrants. When they find out groups of immigrants are being smuggled into the U.S., they go after them, looking to kidnap them for cash or force them into prostitution. It's all about the money.
“It's much like the narcotic trafficking deals. If they know what’s going on and they see a chance to make some money really easy they have no issues with using threats of violence,” said McElroy.
Last year, just outside of El Campo, Homeland Security said five men targeted a load of 13 immigrants being smuggled into the United States. They shot the smugglers and took the immigrants at gunpoint to a stash house on Heron drive in Houston.
The women were taken to another home on Hollister, where they told police they were sexually assaulted by their kidnappers several times a day. The women said the suspects were armed with many weapons.
“That's very, very, very common. It is that brutal force at the beginning. It is kind of like breaking someone's humanity and turning them into a drone that just follows orders,” said Maria Trujillo of Houston Rescue and Restore, an organization that wants everyone to be on the lookout for human trafficking.
“These people have no regard for human life. They don’t treat any of these people like human beings. They are basically looking at them as cargo as merchandise,” said McElroy.
The five men that kidnapped the immigrants outside of El Campo pleaded guilty Friday inside the downtown Federal Courthouse. They will be sentenced in July.
As for the victims in this case, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement said they are getting much-needed help.
“Medically, a lot of these people who have been sexually assaulted have never had medical attention and it is important to get those examinations done, along with trying to get them safe, a shelter where they feel safe,” said Celinda Guerra of the Houston Area Women’s Center.
Guerra handles their hotline number, where victims of human trafficking often call for help. Sadly, children are involved in many of these cases, too.
“We have had calls from minors being so afraid because they are in a place where they can literally see out a very small window where they are accompanied by other minors of the same age who are being forced to do prostitution and not being able to find a way out,” said Guerra.
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