Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The eight undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala were almost home free to their destinations in Texas until their driver stopped in Albuquerque.
That’s when it all went bad.
They were driven to a home in the Northeast Heights on Aug. 5 and held at gunpoint as their kidnappers demanded money they didn’t have.
Now prisoners instead of customers who had already paid the smuggling organization, they were forced to call relatives and ask them to wire money – $1,000, $1,500 or $4,000 – to a store in Albuquerque.
But one of those phone calls resulted in Albuquerque police being sent to the home on Esther NE.
The alleged kidnappers – Eric Arellano, 41, of Albuquerque; Ramiro Perez, 37, of California; and Steven Griego, 33, of Santa Rosa – all face potential life imprisonment on federal charges of hostage taking.
According to court records and search warrant affidavits, the kidnap and ransom plot began to unravel when the immigrants were herded into the house and told by their smugglers-turned-kidnappers to make the calls.
One of them, identified in federal court records as “R.F.,” was ordered to call his sister in Texas.
When his sister answered the call, the kidnappers demanded she wire $4,000 to Albuquerque or her brother would be killed.
Instead of wiring the money, R.F.’s sister called local police in Carrollton, Texas. Officers there “pinged” the cellphone for the location of the people demanding the ransom and came up with an address in Northeast Albuquerque.
Carrollton police asked Albuquerque police to make a welfare check at the address, where officers found two of the hostages and Arellano, a small time ex-convict, watching over them.
But R.F. wasn’t there.
An APD officer spoke with another of the immigrants, Idalia C., who said she was being held against her will.
Idalia C. told officers the transporters had demanded ransom from her family, as they had from R.F.’s family, for her safe transportation to Texas.
She said the other hostages had been taken away in the gray van that had brought them to Albuquerque from California.
Police “pinged” the phone number again. This time, it showed a motel address near I-25 and Osuna.
When Albuquerque police arrived at the motel, they spotted the gray van and its driver, Ramiro Perez, who told officers his “passengers” were in a motel room that, records found by police showed, had been rented by Griego.
After checking on the safety of the hostages, police called in Homeland Security.
Federal agents hauled everyone – hostages, Arellano and Perez – to their office for questioning. They began searching for Griego, who was arrested later.
Under questioning by Homeland Security agents, the immigrants all told the same story.
They were taking the long way around to get to various locations in Texas; some were headed to the Dallas area of which Carrollton is a suburb, while others were going to the Houston area, an eight-hour drive from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Some paid as much as $7,500 to the smugglers to get them across the border into the U.S. at Mexicali, then to Los Angeles where they waited for transportation to take them through Albuquerque into Texas.
The person organizing the smuggling operation was a woman known only as “El Guero” – the light skinned or fair skinned one.
That was one point hostages and kidnappers seemed to agree on in their interviews with federal agents.
Arellano told agents he had worked with El Guero a few times and was willing to let the hostages move on to Texas for whatever cash they had on them.
Perez claimed that he himself was a kidnap victim – a story disputed by the immigrants and that didn’t sway federal authorities who filed charges against him.
Perez told agents that when he arrived at the Esther address, another vehicle parked behind him, blocking the van, and that unknown individuals escorted him and the passengers into the house. Inside, a Hispanic man brandished a gun and pointed it at him.
Perez said the men then put him on the ground and taped his arms behind his back, while continuing to hold him at gunpoint.
However, the passengers said Perez was part of the kidnapping and that he told them they were being kidnapped before they even reached Albuquerque.
They also told agents that Perez wouldn’t stop to let them get food.
The hostages identified Perez and Arellano, who has facial tattoos, and said Griego was the kidnapper wielding the pistol and pointing it at them when they called their relatives for money.
They said Griego was sent to pick up the wire transfers relatives were supposed to send. He was accompanied by a woman with part of her head shaved and three heart tattoos on the side of her head.
Two of the hostage witnesses were allowed to remain in the United States, but couldn’t be held in jail because of threats made against them.
Federal prosecutors now want to take their testimony prior to trial in the form of depositions.
It is not a unique problem in more complicated immigration cases prosecuted along the Southwest border.
They were released under a court order, over the government’s objection, because they both faced threats while in jail.
They are currently under the care and custody of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Homeland Security.
Prosecutors expect defense attorneys to oppose their motion to take depositions in the case, but no formal motions in opposition have been filed.
The three alleged smugglers are all charged in a federal indictment with one count of conspiracy to take hostages, conspiracy to transport illegal aliens, and three counts of taking hostages.
Perez is also charged with an additional three counts of transporting illegal aliens and Griego is charged with brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.
Taking hostages for ransom would be a major step up in the criminal world for Arellano and Griego who have long arrest records but few convictions.
Arellano has pleaded guilty to auto theft and drug possession charges, while Griego had a pending aggravated drunken driving charge when he was arrested in a stolen car in September.
Perez, who is charged with smuggling the immigrants from California, has no local criminal history.
All three men have pleaded not guilty.