PHOENIX – Ten children have been rescued from human smugglers who threatened to rape and kill some of them if their parents didn't pay more money for their entry into the U.S., authorities said Friday.
The children, from 2 to 17 years old, were smuggled from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala, and were being held against their will at a drop house in Phoenix, authorities said. Only one of them was being brought into the country with a parent.
The smugglers threatened to rape and kill three El Salvadoran sisters ages 12, 14 and 16 if their mother didn't pay them $10,000, Arizona Department of Public Safety Capt. Fred Zumbo said.
The girls' mother, who is living legally in the U.S. in the San Francisco area, called the FBI for help, and Phoenix police and other agencies took over from there. Police found the home where the girls were being held, and found them and the other children when a SWAT team raided it Thursday night.
None of the children appeared to have been harmed, and they had been fed and given water, Zumbo said.
"They seemed in fairly good condition considering what they went through," said Zumbo, who leads DPS' Illegal Immigration Prevention & Apprehension Co-op Team. "Who knows what would have happened if we hadn't rescued them, especially if the mother couldn't come up with the money."
Zumbo said it's unusual to find so many children in one drop house unaccompanied by a family member.
Two people were arrested on smuggling, kidnapping and extortion charges. They were identified as Jaime Cruz Gutierrez, 44, and Olga Marino Fuentes, 41, who were both in the country illegally from Mexico.
DPS officials said more than $9,600 in cash was seized from the drop house along with 4,000 pesos ($324), a vehicle and a .38-caliber semi-automatic pistol.
Zumbo said his agency was working to find out who else was involved in the smuggling of the children, in an effort to dismantle the operation.
The three El Salvadoran sisters were turned over to their mother in California as they await immigration hearings so a judge can decide whether they must return to their home country or can stay in the U.S.
A 15-year-old Mexican girl was returned to her home country with her mother, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was working to confirm whether a woman who contacted them is the mother of a 2-year-old Guatemalan girl found in the home.
ICE spokesman Vincent Picard said the agency was working to identify the parents of the five other children: three other girls from El Salvador and two boys from Mexico. The girls are 7, 14 and 17, and the boys are 6 and 17.