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FBI Warns of Smugglers Holding Unlawful Migrants for Ransom

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A migrant is walked out of a stash house with bandages to his leg. | Image by FBI El Paso

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The FBI is warning of the increasing frequency of cartel smugglers holding unlawful migrants for up to $10,000 ransom in stash houses once they cross into the United States from Mexico.

Eighty-eight migrants, presumed to be unlawful, have been rescued from extortion rackets and 15 suspects arrested by the FBI in conjunction with Border Patrol agents since February, Jeffrey Downey, the FBI’s special agent in charge in El Paso, told The New York Post.


The “stash houses,” many across El Paso, are dirty, often abandoned buildings where human traffickers cram dozens of people in “life-threatening” conditions. Many do not have hot or running water, are filled with trash, and lack adequate air conditioning. In one case, victims were forced to drink water out of a bathtub, Downey added.

He further stated that these trafficking victims endure the risk of dehydration and heat stroke, both physical and mental abuse, and the women are threatened with rape if their ransom is not paid.

Family and friends of victims have been forced to pay between $3,000 and $10,000 for the safe release of the individual.

“They have already paid upfront to cross the border, and then once they get here, they are assaulted and held in life-threatening situations,” Downey said.

Last year, the FBI recorded no instances of unlawful migrants being held for ransom by smugglers, added Downey.

“Our primary concern is the safety and well-being of these victims, not their immigration status,” Downey stated to Fox News Digital. “These victims endure so many frightening situations along their journey moving up towards the United States, only to find themselves being threatened with violence or become victims of violent acts.”

“We need family members to report these kidnapping for ransom incidents immediately to the nearest Consulate or Embassy or our office,” Downey continued. “As a community, we should be concerned about the increase of these kidnappings and the threat they pose to the public safety of our community.”

In a recent bust on June 7, FBI El Paso Field Office’s Safe Streets and Violent Crime Task Force, with the assistance of the U.S. Border Patrol El Paso Sector, El Paso Police Department, and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Tribal Police Department, rescued 23 unlawful migrants being held against their will in a residential area in northeast El Paso.

The victims were identified as Guatemalan, Ecuadorian, and Mexican nationals.

Samuel Nuvila Briones, 23, and Salvador Ramirez Montes, 54, were taken into federal custody and processed into the El Paso County Detention facility for their role in the crime. No additional information has been made public about any charges they may face or their migration status.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimated that cartels earn up to $6 billion annually from human smuggling operations.

Downey said that cartel smugglers include networks involving both U.S. and Mexican criminals. Due to ongoing investigations, Downey declined to reveal the names of the cartels behind the recent wave of extortions.

There were more than 239,000 unlawful migrant encounters across the southern border with Mexico in May — the highest for a single month on record, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The number of unlawful migrant encounters for the fiscal year 2022 has already topped 1.5 million, according to CBP statistics.

The FBI’s warning follows what is considered one of the deadliest human smuggling incidents in recent history, when 53 migrants being smuggled into the country died in a sealed tractor-trailer in San Antonio last month as temperatures rose to more than 103 degrees. Four men, including the driver and two Mexican nationals living in the U.S. illegally after overstaying their visas, were charged in connection with the incident.    

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