Federal agents are investigating a suspected “drop house” in Reseda, where more than a dozen illegal immigrants, mostly Central Americans, were being held against their will, authorities said.
Los Angeles police were called late Sunday to the single-story stucco home in the 7900 block of Newcastle Avenue after someone inside dialed 911 on a cellphone and reported that smugglers were not allowing anyone to leave, authorities said.
Police freed 14 people Sunday and discovered two others hiding nearby Monday.
“The smugglers were attempting to extort more money from their relatives before releasing them or moving them to onward destinations,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Interviews with the initial 14 -- 10 men and four women -- revealed that smugglers had charged them between $5,000 and $7,000 each to transport them into the United States, Kice said.
It is not uncommon for human-smugglers, known as coyotes, to hold their charges against their will until full payment is received, often from relatives already in the United States, officials say.
In this case, Kice said, the coyotes appear to have fled once law enforcement moved in, leaving the migrants alone in the home.
“No one in custody appears to be complicit with the smuggling plot,” Kice said.
The 14 individuals were 10 Guatemalans, three Salvadorans and one citizen of the Dominican Republic, Kice said. Two were juveniles, ages 15 and 17. Detained Monday were two men, a Guatemalan and a Salvadoran, Kice said.
All were in relatively good health, showing no outward signs of trauma, Kice said. None complained of mistreatment, other than being held against their will at the home, she said.
If the smuggling case advances, some could be held as witnesses, and others will be processed for return to their home countries, Kice said.
“We’re following any leads in the case, and we’ll see where that takes us,” Kice said.
No weapons were found at the scene, Kice said, but investigators did find ledgers and other paperwork probably linked to the smuggling scheme. Smugglers typically use such drop houses as staging areas for immigrants recently brought into the United States across the Mexican border.
The migrants generally remain at the homes until the smugglers arrange to move them to their ultimate destinations.
Migrants depend on the coyotes for their transport but face being victimized by them.
Human trafficking is a major industry along the U.S.-Mexico border, with connections stretching throughout the United States, Mexico, Central America and elsewhere.