EDINBURG — For decades, the first stop for illegal immigrants making their way across the Texas border has often been a stash house or drop house, an apartment or rental home where they might spend hours or days in squalor waiting to be transported elsewhere. Often it is where they are held until their families pay the smugglers’ fees.
In recent months, stash houses have proliferated in border towns in the Rio Grande Valley and in cities farther north, such as Houston, a trend that has been occurring in Texas but not in other states on the border.
And local, state and federal authorities in Texas say these houses are becoming increasingly overcrowded, with smugglers packing in dozens of people and treating the occupants not so much like customers but prisoners whom they starve, beat or rape.
‘Welcome to hell’
In this South Texas town this month, as the police approached a house and a trailer on a dead-end dirt road, illegal immigrants scattered and fled. But those inside a third residence — a two-bedroom house made of white-painted cinder block, no more than 800 to 1,000 square feet – could not escape, because of the chains on the doors and security bars on the windows.
There was no air-conditioning, no electricity. A total of about 115 men and women were being held, but the largest group — at least 50, perhaps more — were locked in the cinder block house.
A few of them told investigators they had been warned they would be killed or beaten if they did not remain quiet. Some had not been fed in days.
One of the two men who subsequently pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiracy to harbor aliens, Marcial Salas-Garduino, 23, greeted newcomers to the house the same way, according to court documents.
“Welcome to hell,” he told them.
Fourteen miles away, in a rural area near the town of Alton, 33 immigrants were found in March in a 400-square-foot house. The man who ran it limited their food to two eggs and three tortillas once a day and forbade them to go outside.
In March and April, the authorities discovered 32 people crowded into a single-wide trailer in Edinburg, 49 in a three-bedroom house in Houston, about 60 in a house in Brownsville and 60 others in a three-bedroom residence in McAllen.
“We were used to encountering 10 to 15 people per stash house in the past,” said Enrique Sotelo, the Alton police chief. “Now we are not surprised when we see 40 to 75 people crammed into small two- or three-bedroom houses.”
Overcrowding has become routine in stash houses, where there is often no furniture and people sleep on the floor. Sotelo said he had been in stash houses where people were packed so tight that some slept sitting up, leaning against the walls. Border Patrol agents in South Texas have not only raided more stash houses this year than they did last year, they have also found substantially higher numbers of people inside the houses.
‘Stacked on top’
In the federal Customs and Border Protection’s Rio Grande Valley sector, a large area of Southeast Texas that includes Edinburg, Brownsville and McAllen, more than 2,000 illegal immigrants have been apprehended this fiscal year in nearly 80 stash houses, up from 1,012 in 69 stash houses in all the 2011 fiscal year.
“You’ve got people stacked on top of people,” said Jerry Robinette, special agent in charge with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Antonio. “When you have a two-bedroom house that’s made for a family of 4 or 6, and you have 30 or 40 people in there, you can imagine how things can escalate in that kind of an environment.”
Occupants of stash houses in Texas have been sexually assaulted, denied food or water, forced to work for their captors and tortured. One of the 21 people found at a stash house this past year in Edinburg told investigators that the man in charge had hit him with a baseball bat because the occupants connected the refrigerator, after being told not to.
Smugglers often hold the immigrants as ransom to extort more money from their families. Even those who are not being used for extortion are held captive to avoid detection by neighbors and to prevent the loss of money that would result if the immigrants escaped before all fees were paid.
The rise of stash houses in Texas comes as an opposite trend unfolds in parts of Southern California and Arizona, where stash-house activity has declined in recent years. The Phoenix area was once known as the drop house capital of America, but no longer — federal agents discovered 805 immigrants in 51 homes there the past fiscal year, down from 3,221 people in 186 homes in the 2008 fiscal year.
Law enforcement officials said it was unclear why stash houses had increased and become more overcrowded in Texas while declining in California and the Southwest.
Some said that while the authorities in Arizona have been focused on drop houses for years — federal agents in the Phoenix area helped reduce the number after forming a drop house task force in 2009 — those in Texas are now detecting more of them in part through improved coordination and increased enforcement.
Others said the smugglers operating in Texas appeared to be doing whatever they could to increase their profits at a time when illegal immigration into the U.S. at the Mexican border has slowed.
“I can only guess that at this point it’s more economical for them to keep people in one house,” said Sean McElroy, deputy special agent in charge with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Houston. “I think they’re just trying something different. They’re definitely feeling a lot of pressure.”
These days, the first phone calls or tips that lead the authorities to the houses often come from those locked inside or from their relatives. In Edinburg, a town of 77,000 about 16 miles from the border, neighbors said they never saw or heard large numbers of people inside the cinder block house. The police were summoned by a 911 call made by a Spanish-speaking man who was locked inside.
In a hushed voice, he asked the dispatcher to send help.