One can only imagine the fear and anxiety dozens of migrants endured earlier this month while being held for ransom in an apartment in Southeast Albuquerque.
A Guatemalan woman told federal agents she and her 5- and 9-year-old daughters were held at gunpoint for four days at the apartment in the 500 block of Palomas Drive by a pair of smugglers and that they were fed just two meals a day while under constant threat.
“(The victim) advised that she could hear (her daughters’) stomach rumbling from the lack of food,” federal court records state.
Men were crammed into one room in the apartment south of Zuni, while women were crammed in another. The Guatemalan woman said there were so many migrants in the rooms at times that they were unable to lie down, so they sat on the floor with their legs curled in.
The woman said the smugglers took her cellphone and remaining money when she arrived in Albuquerque. She said her children were traumatized by a male smuggler who said he was the boss, waved a handgun around, struck some migrants with it for not responding quickly enough and threatened to kill others.
Authorities were tipped off by a Phoenix woman who said she paid the smugglers $30,000 before they demanded $6,000 more to release the Phoenix woman’s sister — the Guatemalan woman — and her two nieces.
The smugglers sent a video to the Phoenix woman to prove the Guatemalan family was alive. Their greed did them in.
Agents traced the smugglers’ phone to the Albuquerque apartment, where they saw people and belongings being loaded into the apartment.
Agents rescued about 50 people, including one infant, and another eight found in a vehicle leaving the residence for a different destination. Agents also reported recovering $47,000 and a loaded gun.
The alleged smugglers are reportedly undocumented immigrants themselves from Mexico. One, Marcelo Alonso-Almaraz, 32, had previously been deported. He and his wife, Eloisa Almaraz-Vasquez, 35, are charged in federal court with bringing in and harboring certain migrants and hostage taking.
The smuggling bust on Nov. 4 came less than two months after authorities raided a different alleged stash house on Albuquerque’s West Side, where 29 migrants, drugs and guns were found. A confidential informant told agents the migrants had no medical access and were given the “bare minimum” of food and water.
Similar to the stash house on Palomas Drive, agents surveilling the West Side property saw a caravan of vehicles, some with fake license plates, repeatedly drop people off.
A Homeland Security Investigations agent based in El Paso says human smuggling has become a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Unscrupulous smugglers are not just receiving thousands of dollars to smuggle individual migrants across the border, they often extort migrants and their families for more money after entering the United States.
And it’s happening right here in Albuquerque. U.S. Border Patrol has reported discovering more than 175 stash houses in the past fiscal year in New Mexico and West Texas, at which 1,975 migrants were found.
It’s virtually inconceivable these stash houses are going unnoticed by neighbors as dozens of people are marched in and out of homes.
While it’s understandable neighbors might not want to get involved, failure to report such suspicious activity leaves people such as the Guatemalan woman and her children in harm’s way.
Crime Stoppers should get involved. Awards need to be offered so that witnesses may anonymously report human smuggling.
Neighbors also need to get involved. If you see something, say something. It could be the only hope victims of human smuggling have to escape their captors.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.