TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Police in Phoenix rescued a 13-year-old Honduran boy last week who was held captive by suspected smugglers after he crossed into Arizona illegally as an unaccompanied minor.
The city is no stranger to tales of migrants whose smugglers get greedy and demand more money in exchange for freedom. But in most publicized accounts, the victims have been adults.
On Friday, immigration authorities in Florida received a call from the boy’s mother, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her son’s smugglers were demanding more money and refused to release him, she said. Within 10 hours, authorities in Florida and in Phoenix had tracked the boy down to a north Phoenix apartment.
Frances Salas, a suspect in the kidnapping, opened the door and allowed authorities to search the apartment, authorities said.
The boy matched a photo they had. He was unharmed. Salas, 27, was arrested on charges of kidnapping and possession of marijuana for sale after police found a pound of pot in the apartment.
Jesus Millan-Rodriguez, 31, was also arrested and charged with the same counts.
Central American youth have been traveling hundreds of miles, often on top of freight trains and without trustworthy supervision, in attempts to escape crippling poverty and violence. They encounter violent criminal organizations in Mexico that have been known to assault migrants and often must pay authorities to let them through. If they can survive that and make it past U.S. Border Patrol agents, there are still perils they face.
“There are cases, not necessarily the majority, where smugglers will attempt to extort additional money — usually out of family members that are paying the fee — by holding their loved one hostage. And these can become ruthless situations. We are very grateful that this child was found unharmed,” said Amber Cargile, spokeswoman for the Phoenix office of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. “This is a business operation. They don’t view these people as humans, not even the children.”
The boy, who is not being identified, is considered an unaccompanied minor because he was without any adult relatives when he was found. That makes him one of the more than 66,000 unaccompanied youth who have been apprehended after crossing into the United States illegally. Most are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and most have crossed through south Texas.
The Honduran boy is now in the custody of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which usually seeks to reunite children with relatives while their immigration cases unfold in court.
As a potential victim of a crime, the boy also could qualify for a special visa or deferred action from deportation.
Cargile said that while the agency has seen migrant youth be held against their will in the past, it’s not a common occurrence.
Arizona has experienced a steep decline in the apprehension of immigrants here illegally. South Texas, where border agents this summer became so overwhelmed with a wave of immigrant children that they were forced to send the kids to Arizona for first-step processing, has been the hotspot this year for border crossings.
Cargile also attributes the decline in illegal immigration in Arizona to beefed-up efforts against human smugglers.
In March, a Mexican man was sentenced to 70 years in federal prison for his role leading a “rip crew” that preyed on migrants crossing the border illegally.
Isabel Perez-Arellanez was with two others when they encountered three border crossers who’d been separated from their group and were lost in the Tumacacori Mountains south of Tucson. Perez-Arellanez and his partners held the migrants at gunpoint for over two days. After extorting more than $1,000 out of relatives, the men left the migrants in the desert without food or water.
Late last year, three men were sentenced in federal court after being found guilty of crimes related to holding migrants hostage in a west Phoenix drop house. The men had held three migrants and tried to extort additional money out of their families by threatening to “slit their throats and send pictures.”