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Kidnapped, smuggled and worse

The smuggler threatened to kill 4-year-old Nayli if he didn’t receive $11,500 from her parents -- immediately.

He had sneaked the girl across the Mexican border nearly a month earlier and now was holding her for ransom somewhere near Los Angeles.

“Mommy, I don’t want to be here anymore,” Nayli said through tears when the smuggler put her on the phone.

Her mother, Yaneth, could hear terror in her daughter’s voice. “OK, mija, I am coming,” she answered in Spanish before the smuggler hung up. Yaneth was desperate. She had hired the coyote but now he was demanding more than she’d agreed to pay. She didn’t have enough money. And she was still in Mexico, after border agents caught her as she was trying to cross into the U.S.

Yaneth feared she would never see her daughter again.

Though Nayli’s young age makes her case unique, kidnapping illegal immigrants for ransom is common as they cross the border into Southern California -- a harrowing testament to the violent nature of smuggling rings.

Smugglers make deals and break them. They hold men, women and children in locked stash houses, while using violence and threats to extort money from their relatives. The kidnapped immigrants have been beaten, starved, raped, even killed, said Miguel Unzueta, who oversees the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Los Angeles.

Independent coyotes still operate all along the border, but law enforcement officers say highly sophisticated criminal networks and drug trafficking cartels have taken over much of the trade.

“These organizations are ruthless,” Unzueta said. “You don’t know what you are buying into when you decide to be smuggled into the United States. . . . It’s a huge, huge, tremendous risk.”

In January alone, law enforcement officers discovered “drop houses” in Lancaster, Lynwood and Reseda and rescued dozens of illegal immigrants being held against their will. When agents arrived at the Lancaster house, a suspected smuggler was beating one of the immigrants. The women held in Lynwood said guards tried to exchange sex for blankets.

Los Angeles Police Lt. Carlos Velez, whose detectives handle as many as 50 coyote kidnapping cases each year, said immigrants are trusting their lives -- and those of their children -- to criminals looking only to make a profit.

“The motivating factor for them is greed,” he said. “They want the money. They are not concerned about the safety of the individual.”

Yaneth agreed to tell her story on the condition that she and her daughter be referred to by only their middle names because she still fears the smuggler and his associates. Her story was also detailed in a police report and an affidavit filed in federal court and was confirmed by the immigration agents who investigated the case.

Yaneth, 29, knew the journey was risky. But her husband was already in the U.S. and she wanted her family back together.

She and her husband first crossed illegally in 2007, leaving their two children with their grandparents in Mexico. She talked to them every day, but missed them too much. Yaneth returned to Mexico the next year.

But back in Guerrero state, the drug war was escalating and Yaneth didn’t feel safe anymore. She worried about her family getting killed, her children getting kidnapped. “It was really ugly,” she said.

Through a neighbor, she found a smuggler, Jose Luis Martinez-Ocampo, a legal permanent resident who agreed in May 2009 to take her and her children to the U.S. for $4,500. They would have three months to pay.

They flew to Tijuana and planned to cross at the beginning of June. Yaneth and her son, who was 11, would trek through the mountains. Her daughter would cross in the smuggler’s car -- what Yaneth believed would be a faster, safer passage.

“I thought it would be just one day,” she said. “And even that was too much time.” On June 1, Yaneth took a deep breath and handed her daughter to the smuggler. Nayli was carrying her favorite doll and pretended to sleep in the back seat. They crossed without being detected.

But Yaneth and her son were caught by border agents.

In the U.S., Martinez-Ocampo was demanding additional payment, threatening Yaneth’s husband and refusing to release Nayli. Yaneth hired a new smuggler and agreed to pay him $4,000 to take her and her son across the border. On June 18, Yaneth’s son went first, making it to the U.S. and reuniting with his father. The next week, after another failed attempt to cross, Yaneth reached Martinez-Ocampo on his cellphone.

He was angry that she had hired a different smuggler and demanded an additional $7,000. She said he threatened to make her daughter “disappear.”

“Many, many things went through my mind . . . like never, ever seeing her again,” she said. “I wanted to come and look for her myself, knock on door after door looking for her.”

Yaneth finally crossed the border with a coyote at the end of June.

She was exhausted, but walked quickly, she said, driven by the image of holding Nayli. In the U.S., the new smuggler held her at houses in Phoenix and Tucson before releasing her in Los Angeles on July 2.

She tried calling Martinez-Ocampo again and again but he didn’t answer. She became frantic. At a cousin’s house that night, she couldn’t eat or sleep. She thought only of finding her daughter. She kept telling herself that Nayli was OK.

The next day, she realized going to police was her only option. So she walked into the Hollenbeck station and told officers that a smuggler was holding her daughter for ransom and threatening to kill her. Pleading for help, Yaneth gave them Martinez-Ocampo’s name and phone numbers.

The police called Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Knowing the girl could be in danger, agents quickly launched an investigation to find her.

“That is something you jump on immediately,” said agent Troy Jacobs.

Yaneth passed along a photo of Nayli and told Jacobs what the girl had been wearing: pink Converse shoes, green pants and gold earrings. Yaneth said she didn’t care if she was deported; she knew that one way or another, the agents would find Nayli.

Using Department of Motor Vehicles and immigration databases, Jacobs tracked down photos of Martinez-Ocampo. He subpoenaed the cellphone records.

Within a few hours, Jacobs had three addresses: one in Ventura County and two in Los Angeles County. He and several other agents split into two teams. At the first address, they found an Ocampo but he wasn’t the smuggler. At the second address, there was no Martinez-Ocampo. There was one address left.

“That was our last chance, based on the information we had, to locate her,” Jacobs said.

When they arrived at the house, a woman came to the door. Martinez-Ocampo was her father, she said, but he was in Mexico.

Agents could see a young girl at the table. From Nayli’s photograph and her pink shoes, they knew it was she.

Martinez-Ocampo’s daughter, 20, said her father had brought the girl home weeks earlier and told the family to watch her. The girl called Martinez-Ocampo her tio, or uncle. The daughter assumed Nayli, who cried for days after arriving, was a relative from Mexico.

When asked if she wanted to see her mother, Nayli said yes and began clinging to the agents. They took her downtown, where Yaneth was waiting.

“My daughter ran directly to me,” Yaneth said. “I hugged her tightly. But she told me, ‘Mommy, don’t hug me so tight.’ ”

Yaneth asked why, and Nayli told her that the people had hit her. She also said they told her that her mother didn’t want her anymore.

Yaneth had to appear before a family court judge before taking her daughter home. There, she learned that her daughter had been sexually assaulted, hit with a stick and dragged by her feet across the floor.

“I felt like the world had fallen in on me,” Yaneth said, crying as she recalled hearing what her daughter had endured.

In court, Yaneth was asked why she put Nayli in the hands of a smuggler. She responded that she wanted a better life for her daughter and never thought this could happen.

“They gave her to me that day,” Yaneth said.

Now, Yaneth rarely lets her daughter out of her sight. She tells Nayli and her brother that she is there to protect them, that they will never be separated again. She does errands on her bicycle, with Nayli in a seat on the back. When her children are at school, she watches the clock until she can pick them up.

Nayli, now in kindergarten, loves to paint and play with stuffed animals. While her mother chatted recently with the immigration agents, Nayli -- wearing pigtails and a Hello Kitty shirt -- sat beside her, coloring and eating chocolate. Her big brown eyes sparkling, she giggled as she practiced English with one of the agents and then buried her head in her mother’s lap.

About a week and a half after agents found Nayli, Martinez-Ocampo was arrested in Tijuana. He pleaded guilty in September to a harboring charge and in January was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and ordered to pay for Nayli’s counseling. After serving his time, Martinez-Ocampo is set to be deported.

Yaneth wishes the sentence was longer and fears that once he is released, he will track down her family in Mexico. “Day and night, I can’t sleep,” she said. “I worry about my parents.”

With the backing of the immigration agency, an attorney is applying for Nayli and her family to receive special visas for undocumented immigrant crime victims. Though most illegal immigrants found during smuggling investigations are deported, agents said Nayli’s case is different because of her age and the abuse.

Yaneth is hopeful that she may get her immigration papers, but she wishes the family had stayed in Mexico. “If God told me this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have come,” she said. “I would have stayed in my pueblo.”

In the first weeks after being rescued, Nayli slept next to her mother and woke often with nightmares. She doesn’t talk about what happened.

“She wants to forget,” Yaneth said. “I know she is moving forward. She is going to overcome this.”

Yaneth said she, too, wants to move forward. But she can never forget.

anna.gorman@latimes.com


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