Saturday, January 28, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Suspected Managers of Houston Immigrant Stash House Face Federal Charges

A 911 call from a woman who said human smugglers were demanding $6,000 on top of $11,000 she had already paid them to bring her brother from Honduras led to the discovery of 97 immigrants locked in a Houston home.

HOUSTON (CN) — Five people have been arrested on federal human smuggling charges after authorities found 97 undocumented immigrants locked in two bedrooms of a Houston home Friday.

Francis Martinez of Dallas called 911 Friday to report her brother Santos Vaquedano had been kidnapped, according to court documents.

Martinez told Houston police she had paid smugglers $11,000 in February to bring Vaquedano from Honduras to the United States. She said a man and a woman had called her Thursday and told her to drive to Houston, meet them at a Walgreens parking lot and pay them another $6,300 for Vaquedano’s release.

On her drive to Houston, Martinez said, a woman called her and put her brother on the phone.

“Martinez provided HPD with a recording of the conversation and Vaquedano repeatedly asked Martinez ‘please help me,’” Department of Homeland Security special agent Suyapa Martin wrote in a sworn statement in support of a criminal complaint filed Saturday and publicized by Houston federal prosecutors Monday.

Martinez said a man also called her during the drive and said they would kill her brother if she did not pay.

Using the callers’ cellphone numbers, police determined they had contacted Martinez from a home in southwest Houston and started watching the residence, the complaint states.

An HPD SWAT team raided the home Friday morning and found 97 undocumented immigrants – five women and the rest men – locked in two bedrooms with deadbolts.

All the men were only wearing underwear. Though none of the immigrants were tied up, they reportedly told police their captors had ordered them not to stand up and made them ask permission to use the bathroom.

Some said they had not eaten in three days or had any water and several were treated for dehydration, Houston’s CBS affiliate KHOU11 reported.

Homeland Security Investigations workers found several ledgers in the home with the names of undocumented immigrants and smuggling payment records, HSI Agent Martin says in his affidavit.

Federal agents arrested five undocumented immigrants after captives identified them in photo lineups as smugglers who managed the stash house. The defendants are Henry Licona-Larios, 31, of Copan, Honduras; Kevin Licona-Lopez, 25, of Santa Barbara, Honduras; Marco Baca-Perez, 30, of Michoacan, Mexico; Marcelo Garcia-Palacios, 21, of Oaxaca, Mexico; and Marina Garcia-Diaz, 22, of El Salvador.

Eight of the captives have also been taken into custody to testify against the defendants as material witnesses.

One of the witnesses, Wendy Carolina Fortin-Javier of Honduras, told HSI agents she had illegally entered the U.S. on April 22 at McAllen, Texas, with the goal of reaching Seattle, Washington.

Licona-Lopez had picked her up in an SUV and taken her to the Houston house on April 28, she told police.

“Lopez told the UNCs [undocumented noncitizens] not to make any noise once inside the residence and stated if the UNCs did not live, it was because the family did not pay,” Fortin-Javier informed HSI agents, as cited in the charging document.

Fortin-Javier identified Licona-Larios as the apparent leader of the smuggling operation. “Larios told the UNCs if the money was not paid, they would be put in ‘4 pieces of wood.’ Fortin understood that phrase to mean placed in a coffin six feet under,” the arrest affidavit states.

At least five of the detainees tested positive for Covid-19, Houston Police Assistant Chief Patricia Cantu told KHOU.

After Friday’s raid, neighbors told police they had not noticed anything unusual at the home.

The five defendants have been charged with harboring, concealing and shielding illegal aliens for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain. If convicted, they face up to 10 years in federal prison and $250,000 fines.

They are set to make their initial appearances before a U.S. magistrate judge at 2 p.m. Monday in Houston federal court.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.