Wichita Two Mexican citizens were indicted on federal conspiracy charges Wednesday, accused of taking illegal immigrants hostage in Arizona and threatening them with torture unless they raised a ransom, U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren said.
The indictment accuses Ramiro Alapizco-Valenzuela, 29, and Rene Cota-Beltran, 27, of taking 30 immigrants hostage in Arizona on Jan. 18 and demanding $2,000 from each of them. They allegedly threatened if they didn't pay they would have their fingers, hands or ears cut off, or be otherwise maimed, prosecutors said.
Eleven hostages who were able to get the money wired from friends or families were put in a van headed for Jacksonville, Fla., and told they would have to pay another $500 cash when they arrived.
That van had a flat tire on Jan. 24 in Reno County. Sheriff's officers who'd stopped to check on the van called Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after they became suspicious it was transporting illegal immigrants, according to the indictment.
"Illegal immigration is a growing problem in our state and our country and more often than not the federal and state law enforcement officers are encountering not just aliens who have illegally entered the country but a new breed of criminals who prey on these very vulnerable people," Melgren told reporters.
Alapizco-Valenzuela and Cota-Beltran were charged in a superseding indictment with conspiracy to take hostages and conspiracy to knowingly transport aliens unlawfully in the United States. They also face separate counts of taking hostages and knowingly transporting aliens unlawfully in the United States.
Alapizco-Valenzuela was also charged with unlawfully re-entering the United States after being deported.
Cyd Gilman, the defense attorney representing Alapizco-Valenzuela, said Wednesday she had just read the indictment and could not comment on the case. Philip White, the attorney for Cota-Beltran, was out of the office and did not immediately return a message.
Prosecutors said on Jan. 18, smugglers who brought the 30 immigrants to the U.S. hid them in a so-called drop house in Peoria, Ariz., until they could be driven to their next destination. Four men guarded them, taking their shoes and other personal belongings to keep them from leaving, according to the indictment.
The next morning, seven men with firearms broke into the house and tied up the guards before taking the immigrants to another house. Of the group, the 10 men and one woman who were able to get the $2,000 were then loaded into a minivan en route to Jacksonville, Fla., according to the indictment.
The case represents a growing and disturbing trend in illegal immigration, Melgren said.
"Trafficking in illegal aliens is becoming a growing source of income for organized crime operations," he said. "It is profitable and low risk because the victims are not likely to complain or contact law enforcement."
Kansas is seeing a sharp increase not only in the number of illegal immigrants entering the state but also in the number who have been injured or killed getting here, he said.
Pete Baird, assistant special agent in charge of the ICE office in Kansas City, said many accidents take place because smugglers do not have any regard for the immigrants.