‘Drop House’ Spurs Arrests
Two Guatemalan men were charged Thursday with harboring illegal immigrants after federal authorities discovered 25 Central and South American migrants crowded inside a “drop house” near downtown Riverside.
The migrants had been smuggled into the United States and were being held hostage until family members paid off their debts, authorities said.
They had been held for more than a month and had been prevented from leaving by a deadbolt on an upstairs door and bars on the bedroom windows.
“These smugglers are not do-gooders,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “They are in this for one reason and one reason only, and that’s the money.”
Migrants told federal agents that the journeys from their countries cost as much as $10,000. The migrants said that they were fed only once a day, that they were crammed into two bedrooms and that the guards threatened them repeatedly with a machete.
The Brockton Avenue house, which was decorated with Christmas lights, was discovered Wednesday after agents received a tip from a friend of one of the migrants.
The friend told authorities that he had sent $5,000 via wire transfer, but that the smugglers were demanding an additional $5,000.
Among those detained were 15 migrants from Guatemala, seven from Ecuador and three from El Salvador.
Authorities are interviewing the detainees and determining which to designate as material witnesses.
Those migrants will be allowed to stay in the United States temporarily to help with the prosecution. The others will be placed in deportation proceedings.
Agents seized accounting ledgers at the house and are continuing the investigation. Kice said that the two Guatemalan men -- Rodolfo Miguel Alvares-Mendoza, 20, and Carlos Andres-Antonio, 19, -- were the “enforcers,” but that probably others were running the smuggling operation.
“We want to do everything we can to identify people further up in the organization,” she said.
Christian Ramirez, San Diego director of the American Friends Service Committee, said smuggling drop houses are becoming a common occurrence along the border and in Southern California.
“We are seeing more violent smugglers operating on the border,” Ramirez said, “running these kind of safe houses where people are essentially kidnapped and held ransom.”