Five people who have lived illegally in the United States are charged with smuggling after Houston police, investigating a kidnapping tip, found nearly 100 men and women in a home, authorities said.
A criminal complaint filed Saturday in the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas said Marina Garcia-Diaz, 22, of El Salvador; Henry Lincona-Larios, 31, from Honduras; Kevin Lincona-Lopez, 25, from Honduras; and Marco Baca-Perez, 30, and Marcelo Garcia-Palacios, 21, both from Mexico, were arrested Friday.
They are accused of "sheltering, hiding and protecting" undocumented immigrants. for & # 39; commercial benefit or private financial gain & # 39 ;, said a statement from the office of Jennifer B. Lowery, the acting US attorney.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, their lawyers said.
Alejandro Macias, who said he represented Kevin Lincona-Lopez, said in an email that his client "has not been charged and is believed to be innocent." Lawyers for the other defendants declined to comment or were not immediately available on Tuesday.
The defendants will each face a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and fines of up to $ 250,000 if convicted, the statement said.
The group of people was discovered Friday in a two-story house in southwest Houston. Houston Police Department Assistant Chief Daryn Edwards said police had been tipped off about a possible kidnapping, which led them to the home where officials found them "huddled". They seemed to be in their twenties and thirties, he said.
He said the scene seemed to him "more of a smuggling business and not human trafficking".
According to an affidavit, police received an emergency call Friday from a woman who said her brother had been kidnapped. She said she paid "$ 11,000 to people smugglers in February" to bring her brother from Honduras to the United States, he said. She was then told to drive from Dallas to a Walgreens in Houston to pay the smugglers an additional $ 6,300 for his release, the filing said.
On the way the woman received a phone call. Her brother was put on the line and he said repeatedly, "Please help me," the affidavit said. Then a man called the woman and told her her brother would be killed unless she handed over the money, it said.
She called the Houston police, who used geolocation data to find the cell phones used to place the calls, and that information led them to the house, the affidavit said. After looking at the house, authorities found "about 97" people crammed into two locked rooms, using a search warrant, and seized money and ledgers from the house containing "payment details of people smuggling," the affidavit said.
All of the people in the group, including about five women, were undocumented and were from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, the affidavit said. They got coronavirus tests from the authorities, it said. Police said some showed symptoms of Covid-19.
Some told authorities they had been beaten if they were not quiet, or that they had been threatened with death if their relatives did not pay, the affidavit said. One person was threatened to be put in "4 pieces of wood," which he said was a coffin, it said.