Five people who had been living in the United States illegally are facing human-smuggling charges after the police in Houston, investigating a kidnapping tip, found nearly 100 men and women locked in a house, the authorities said.
A criminal complaint filed on Saturday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas said that Marina Garcia-Diaz, 22, of El Salvador; Henry Lincona-Larios, 31, of Honduras; Kevin Lincona-Lopez, 25, of Honduras; and Marco Baca-Perez, 30, and Marcelo Garcia-Palacios, 21, both of Mexico, were arrested on Friday.
They face charges that they “harbored, concealed and shielded” undocumented immigrants for “commercial advantage or private financial gain,” according to a statement from the office of Jennifer B. Lowery, the acting U.S. attorney.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, their lawyers said.
Alejandro Macias, who said he was representing Kevin Lincona-Lopez, said in an email that his client “has not been indicted and is presumed innocent.” Lawyers for the other defendants declined to comment or could not immediately be reached on Tuesday.
The defendants each face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 if convicted, the statement said.
The group of people was discovered in a two-story house in southwest Houston on Friday. Assistant Chief Daryn Edwards of the Houston Police Department said that the police had received a tip about a possible kidnapping, which led them to the home, where officials found them “huddled together.” They appeared to be in their 20s and 30s, he said.
He said the scene struck him as “more of a smuggling thing and not a trafficking thing.”
According to an affidavit, the police received a 911 call on Friday from a woman who said her brother had been kidnapped. She said she had “paid $11,000 in February to human smugglers” to bring her brother from Honduras to the United States, it said. She was then told to drive from Dallas to a Walgreens in Houston to pay the smugglers an additional $6,300 for his release, the filing said.
While en route, the woman received a call. Her brother was put on the line, and he repeatedly said, “Please help me,” according to the affidavit. Then a man called the woman and told her that her brother would be killed unless she handed over the money, it said.
She called the Houston police, who used geolocation data to find the cellphones that were used to place the calls, and that information led them to the house, the affidavit said. After watching the house, the authorities, using a search warrant, found “approximately 97” people crammed into two locked rooms, and seized cash and ledgers from the house containing “human smuggling payment records,” the affidavit said.
All the people in the group, which included about five women, were undocumented, and had come from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, the affidavit said. They were given coronavirus tests by the authorities, it said. The police said some had showed symptoms of Covid-19.
Some told the authorities that they had been hit if they were not quiet, or were threatened with death if their relatives did not pay, the affidavit said. One person was threatened with being put in “4 pieces of wood,” which he took to mean a coffin, it said.