Ismael Santiago Garcia's mother wept as she pleaded with her 22-year-old deaf-mute son not to leave Mexico City for the United States last year with the man they knew only as Senor Paoletti.
"With tears in my eyes I told him, 'You shouldn't go because you don't know this man.' But when they're young, boys don't always know what they're doing," Santiago's mother, Juana Ofelia Garcia, recalled in a radio interview here Monday.
And so, Santiago left on May 9, 1996, paying his own way either to Los Angeles or New York--she still isn't sure which city. Three months later, she said, an envelope arrived with photographs of her son but no note or return address.
Then, after a year of silence, Garcia and dozens of other relatives here heard reports Sunday that their missing deaf-mute sons, daughters, sisters and brothers may be among dozens of Mexican illegal migrants who police say were held as virtual slaves in New York City.
Police there allege that the Paoletti family--many of them deaf and mute themselves--forced 57 migrants into indentured labor, selling key rings and trinkets for $1 each in subways and airports under the threat of beatings. New York officials said Sunday that some of the migrants indicated through sign language that they had been kidnapped.
Four members of the Paoletti family were among seven suspected Mexican smugglers arrested Sunday by New York City police. Four of the seven people arrested were arraigned Monday in federal court in Brooklyn. They were charged with conspiracy to bring, transport and conceal illegal migrants. If convicted, they each face a possible prison sentence of 10 years for each migrant involved.
Police searched for Reinaldo Rustrian Paoletti, the alleged patriarch of the group accused of smuggling dozens of deaf-mute Mexicans into the United States and keeping them in two small Queens apartments while forcing them to work 18 hour days for a fraction of the profits.
Meanwhile, relatives and educators of the deaf and mute here in the city where many were recruited reacted with outrage and despair. For some, it confirmed their worst fears.
Several religious leaders and educators who work with the deaf and mute here said they knew of other groups that have recruited the hearing and speech impaired from Mexico's squalor with the promise of big profits in the United States. None, however, indicated that the recruits had been kidnapped.
Most said they are convinced that hundreds of other Mexican deaf-mutes have been recruited as trinket vendors in recent years and may be living under similar conditions in other U.S. cities, among them Los Angeles.
"I know of others who have gone to the United States, including people from this institute, who have gotten trapped in this deception. So for me, this is not strange or unknown," said the Rev. Martin Montoya Garcia, director of Mexico City's Rosendo Olleta Institute, a church school that educates low-income deaf and mute people.
"I've heard of other operations in Mexico City, Monterrey, Guadalajara and Torreon. In April, when I was in Torreon, I talked to deaf-mute children at another institute. I heard them talk about a person called La Gringa [the American woman] who invited them to come with her to the United States."
Montoya, along with other educators and social workers, said many of the recruits are bused to Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and other Mexican border towns and then smuggled into the United States.
Jose Badillo Huerta, director of Mexico City's National School for the Deaf, said he first detected trafficking in deaf-mutes to Southern California five years ago, when he learned that his students were being recruited to serve as vendors in the United States. He said he reported it to Mexican authorities, who took no action.
Several years later, Badillo said, he went to Long Beach in search of a former student whose mother was ill in Mexico City. There, he said, he found many Mexican deaf-mutes selling trinkets.
"This is common in areas closest to the Mexican border," he said. "It's due to the lack of work opportunities here. They're given this illusion of a better life there. Then they are betrayed."
Added Montoya: "They [the recruits] are very easy to convince, first and foremost because of their family situation, in which family members often reject them and there's a lack of communication."
Within months of the recruits' departure, he said, many of their relatives begin to worry because the recruits apparently are not permitted to write letters or contact their families through other means. He said the leverage the smugglers wield is based on the fact that most recruits are in the United States illegally.
"Many families come to me, and they cry that all they know is their children are gone," he said. "Many go to the police station and to their neighbors to ask for help, but they have never received any concrete assistance."
In the aftermath of the grim discovery in Queens, the Mexican government mobilized on Monday to show that it was working intensively on the New York case--even as officials tried to play down the drama surrounding it.
At a Mexico City news conference, Enrique Loaeza Tozar, deputy foreign secretary for consular affairs, asserted that only one of the rescued migrants showed signs of physical abuse. He insisted that the majority told Mexican officials in New York that they had not been held against their will.
Loaeza said U.S. officials have assured Mexico City that none of the migrants will be taken to detention facilities, adding that all have said they wish to remain in the United States. He said New York City police have requested that their names be withheld, but he gave no reason. And he insisted that consular officials in New York had no reason to suspect mistreatment or coercion of Mexican deaf-mutes in the past.
But it seemed clear that the news from New York caught the Mexican government by surprise.
Humberto Cota Gomez at Mexico's National Institute of Human Communications, a Health Ministry department that evaluates and rehabilitates the deaf and mute, said his institute had never heard of the recruiting and smuggling practice before last weekend.
According to Juana Ofelia Garcia, though, the government should have known. For months, she said, she tried unsuccessfully to get police and social-welfare officials here to investigate her son's disappearance.
Although it could not be confirmed Monday whether Ismael Santiago was among the migrants rescued in New York, the story his mother and sister told several news organizations here confirmed independent accounts of how recruiters like the Paolettis allegedly operated, preying on a vulnerable community with the promise of recognition and riches.
Despite the family's concern, Santiago's sister said, they couldn't convince him not to go; he had saved enough money to finance his journey, she said, "and he wanted to leave. He had the illusion that he would go and see the world."
Helena Sundman, researcher in The Times' Mexico City Bureau, contributed to this report.