• 5 charged in Houston human smuggling operation
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     | March 26,2014
     
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    Authorities search people outside a house in southeast Houston where more than 100 people in the United States illegally were discovered, according to police. Five men, at least two of them from Mexico, are accused of using guns and threats to hold 115 people hostage unless they paid ransom to continue their illegal entry into the United States.

    HOUSTON — Five men, at least two of them from Mexico, are accused of using guns and threats to hold 115 people hostage in a small Houston house unless they paid ransom to continue their illegal entry into the United States.

    A criminal complaint from Department of Homeland Security Special Agent Andres Garcia Jr. said the people, discovered last week crammed into the home of less than 1,300 square feet, were stripped of their shoes and most of their clothing to keep them from escaping.

    They also were threatened with violence if they did not comply and there were instances of some being kicked and beaten and females being groped, the complaint said. One pregnant girl was among people struck with a wooden paddle.

    The five men — Jose Aviles-Villa, Jonathan Solorzano-Tavila, Antonio Barruquet-Hildiberta, Jose Cesmas-Borja and Eugenio Sesmas-Borja — stood handcuffed and shackled during a brief court appearance Tuesday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Frances Stacy on hostage-taking, weapons and conspiracy charges.

    “This is an alien smuggling case, basically, where a firearm was used in connection with this offense,” Stacy told them. “Your lawyer can more fully describe the accusations against you.”

    One of the men wore shorts, others were in jeans. All listened on headphones as the proceedings were translated for them into Spanish. Stacy reviewed questionnaires that indicated all had wives and children. She agreed to a request from each for a court-appointed attorney. The judge specified the attorney be Spanish-speaking but denied immediate bail because the defendants were considered a flight risk.

    A bond hearing was set for Thursday. The defendants also were entitled to a probable cause hearing, she said.

    Conviction on the hostage-taking charge carried up to a life prison term and $250,000 fine, federal prosecutor Julie Searle said. Convictions on the weapons charge could result in up to 10 years in prison and conspiracy up to 20 years, plus fines, she said.

    Aviles-Villa and Cesmas-Borja told Houston police they were from Mexico and in the U.S. illegally, according to the criminal complaint. The immigration status of the three other men was not immediately clear.

    One of the people held hostage told authorities Solorzano-Tavila appeared to be the person in charge at the stash house, where smugglers bring the people they’ve brought into the U.S. illegally and keep them until they or their family members pay a ransom.

    Captives told authorities they were held under armed guard. Doors were locked with dead bolts and windows were covered with plywood. A wood paddle, stun gun, ammunition, shotgun and rifle were found at the home, according to the criminal complaint.

    Aviles-Villa and Cesmas-Borja were in a car that had left the house that police pulled over because it had no rear-view mirror. Officers spotted a handgun “protruding from beneath the front passenger seat,” according to the court document.

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