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DANGEROUS PASSAGE

Human smugglers in Texas allegedly terrorized captive migrants with Tasers and pistols

REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Tasers deliver a disabling shock of 50,000 volts.
  • Justin Rohrlich
By Justin Rohrlich

Geopolitics reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Three accused human smugglers allegedly held more than 100 undocumented migrants captive on a ranch in South Texas, where they menaced them with Tasers and held guns to their heads. That’s according to federal court filings, which say the trio—US citizens Juan Carlos Barrera, Odilon Oyervides, Jr, and Isaac Villarreal—terrorized their captives for more than two weeks before one managed to escape and notify police.

A grand jury last week returned an indictment of the three men, who are set to be arraigned on Sept. 4. Their attorneys did not respond to our requests for comment.

For immigrants without proper documentation, getting to the United States has become more treacherous than ever, with nearly three in ten reporting having experienced violence along the way. People attempting the journey have been kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and robbed.

In recent years, human smugglers, or coyotes, have begun charging higher prices—not necessarily due to increased enforcement, but rather the perception of a crackdown under US president Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policies. In 2017, sources estimated the cost of passage at somewhere between $4,000 and $10,000. The commonly accepted range now falls between $6,000 and $10,000, according to an April study by the Rand Corporation.

The reveal

On Aug. 8, Victor Manuel Barahona-Mejia, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, flagged down a state trooper on a rural highway near El Sauz, TX. Barahona told the trooper that he had just run away from a nearby ranch where he and about 130 other people were being “held against their will, physically assaulted and threatened,” according to a criminal complaint filed in the case.

The trooper contacted US Border Patrol, which verified Barahona’s story and called in reinforcements, including from the National Guard.

“Agents determined that, based on the dangerous nature of the situation, immediate action was necessary for the safety of the people being held against their will,” explains the complaint.

Authorities showed up at the ranch and detained 73 migrants; the smugglers were nowhere to be found. As they were being driven to the Rio Grande Border Patrol Station for processing, one of the detainees spotted a black Dodge Dakota used by the three alleged smugglers and pointed it out to the agents, who radioed state police.

A short while later, troopers stopped Barrera, Oyervides, Jr, and Villarreal’s truck for a seatbelt violation. Responding Border Patrol agents recognized the three “from their associations with prior alien smuggling events,” the complaint says.

The takedown

According to court documents, the smugglers invoked their right to silence and refused to speak to police. However, five of the migrants held hostage agreed to describe what they had experienced at the ranch.

In a sworn statement, Barahona, the Salvadoran who waved down the trooper and exposed the smuggling operation, said he was paying $11,000 to get to the US. He said he decided to flee the ranch after spending 15 days among the 130 or so people there who were being “mistreated by two caretakers who had Tasers.”

Barerra was one of those with a Taser, and “would kick some of the undocumented aliens,” said Barahona.

“Barahona stated that [Barrera] would also carry a gun and on one occasion fired it into the nearby brush and threatened the undocumented aliens with it,” his statement reads.

A Honduran who was at the ranch, Ahunner Cabrera-Gomez, described Barrera as “violent,” and said he saw him pistol-whip another migrant with his Taser. He told agents he was paying $4,300 to get to the US.

A second Honduran, Osman Josue Bonilla-Cortes, said he was paying $6,500 to be smuggled over the border. After crossing the Rio Grande on a raft, Bonilla was taken to the ranch where he said both Barrera and Villarreal would “terrorize and intimidate” anyone who asked for anything.

A Mexican national who was held at the ranch told Border Patrol agents that Barerra “pointed a pistol at him.” The man, Heriberto Montor-Villasenor, said he was paying $7,000 to be smuggled into the US.

Domingo Bernane Ajpop-Tzaj, from Guatemala, told agents his family was paying 110,000 quetzal, or a little more than $14,000, for his journey. Ajpop said Barrera instructed them all “how to behave and…threatened them with a pistol,” which he once held to another migrant’s head.

The usual

The case against Barrera, Villarreal, and Oyervides Jr. is “somewhat of an outlier,” said César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an associate professor of law at the University of Denver who writes frequently about immigration. It is not only unusual for authorities to come upon and disrupt an operation of this size, but it is also somewhat notable for the government to mount a case of this type, García told Quartz.

“The number of prosecutions for smuggling people into the US historically represents a fairly small fraction of criminal prosecutions across the federal court system,” he said.

What is not uncommon, continued García, is the mistreatment and cruelty of the smugglers meted out to the people under their ostensible care.

“The reality is that migrants repeatedly tell stories of suffering unimaginable abuse and threats of violence,” said García, “and so I wish that this was something that struck me as more unusual, but it’s not.”

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