Texas police looking for a missing woman and her two children found something else on Wednesday — 108 people imprisoned in an overflowing, squalid stash house where human smugglers had reportedly locked them up while waiting for payment.
The trafficking operation was discovered in a suburb just south of Houston, after a tipster told local authorities that she was being extorted by smugglers. The woman said that her young daughter and her two children had failed to turn up at an agreed location and that she was worried for their safety.
Police officers arriving at the 1,500-square-foot property found a “sea of people coming at the officers as they entered,” Houston Police Department spokesman John Cannon said. “The smell and conditions were just awful.”
"It was just filth, very squalid-like conditions inside. Trash bags with clothing piled as high as you can see," Cannon continued. "They were very surprised at the numbers of people inside. Some were just sitting on top of one another because there was just no room."
The videos below show scenes from the raid.
Video from a local news station shows an aerial view of the raid.
Video uploaded to Facebook by local journalist Randy Wallace shows the raided house.
The prisoners reportedly included 15 females, one of whom was pregnant, and 17 minors. The missing mother and her two children were among those held in the filthy conditions, with access to only one bathroom. Some of the victims told authorities that they had been there for a few days, others said they had been locked up for more than two weeks.
The migrants, primarily from Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador — and presumed to be undocumented — had their shoes confiscated by smugglers, to make it harder for them to flee the house. The men were stripped to their underwear.
Meghan Rhoad, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who has worked on migration issues on the US-Mexico border, said it’s not uncommon for smugglers to hold migrants captive until they or their families are able to pay a ransom for their freedom.
“Some people pay in advance, others pay after being smuggled,” Rhoad told VICE News. “Sometimes they are told one price at the beginning but then at the end it’s higher.”
As controls intensify along the 2,000-mile border, the business of smuggling gets both more lucrative and prone to greater abuse.
Most migrants are reluctant to report mistreatment — which can often include sexual violence — fearing both reprisals from their captors and the likelihood of deportation.
“There are some smugglers who are seen as a customer service and are very responsible, and there are others who are ruthless,” Rhoad added. “As the border becomes more dangerous in general the smuggling process becomes more dangerous, and attracts a different kind of smuggler.”
Authorities will interview, document, examine, and feed the people found in the Houston home, many of whom will likely face deportation.
Five men were arrested in connection to the raid. Two of the suspects were stopped before the raid and three others attempted to flee after the bust. Police also found hundreds of chickens outside the house, believed to have been kept for cock-fighting.
Wednesday’s incident was the most significant of its kind in several years, but it is by no means an isolated accident, as this area is a hub of human smuggling. In 2012, 86 people were found in a different house in the Houston area.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi