ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Starved, physically and sexually abused, shoved in tight spaces with dozens of others. Those are the inhumane conditions federal law enforcement officials say they are finding migrants in across Albuquerque. In the last year, local and federal police uncovered what they are calling a surprising number of stash houses in the city – homes and apartments where human smugglers hide people they help enter the United States illegally on their way to a new life in the country.

“Hey, open the door,” an Albuquerque Police officer yelled outside a single-wide trailer off Zuni Road SE in November 2022. He and several other officers, with guns in hand, repeatedly called for a suspected smuggler to comply. Records show APD was led to the home on a tip a Mexican woman was being held against her will. Parts of the body camera footage are blacked out because of who was working the case and what they found once inside the home.

“They gotta be packed in tight,” one officer commented. Another added, “Yeah, there’s more in the backroom. I could see their heads pop up in that window.” Inside the trailer, police located 60 people that records stated were smuggled into the country illegally, including children and the Mexican woman they were trying to locate.  

Police arrested the suspected smuggler outside the home. His criminal complaint shows the young Mexican woman told investigators he threatened to kill her if her family didn’t send more money. But even after they did, the man did not let her go. She also said the other women and girls were sexually assaulted, beaten, and starved. The abuse escalated, she explained, if they did not cook and clean for the members of the smuggling organization.

APD uncovered a stash house. Detectives called in Homeland Security Investigations to take over the human smuggling case.

“The conditions in these stash houses are egregious and shocking to the conscience,” HSI’s Deputy Special Agent in Charge Jason Stevens said. “I would say most people could not fathom.” He explained since October 2022, his Albuquerque office has been dealing with an unprecedented increase in stash house discoveries. “So, I was surprised. I know historically that hasn’t been a thing here,” Stevens said.

Caught off guard, he had to get help from other federal offices. Stevens and U.S. Attorney Alexander Uballez believe it will only continue.

Uballez explained, “Cartels have really pivoted their focus and the majority of their profits now come from human smuggling enterprises and no longer from narcotics.” It’s a change he said his office is paying attention to. “It used to be that we required a certain number of migrants in a load or in a house in order for us to charge. We’ve completely reoriented that to focus on danger to the community, to risk, and to connections to transnational organized crime.” With that threshold, Uballez said not every so-called bad actor faces charges, “Our effort has really changed to focus on those who make profit off of absolute misery and desperation for these migrants… For us, it’s about collecting the intelligence, putting together the networks, and charging and extraditing the people from south of our border.”

In December 2022, Bernalillo County Deputies responded to a call about multiple people jumping out of a semi-trailer and running into a home on Maplewood Court SW. They ended up arriving just in time to catch a suspected smuggler. The deputies stopped a car pulling out of the driveway. Inside they located two men in the back seat. One of them, a Venezuelan man, later admitted to receiving cash and two rifles to drive the semi-truck up I-25 from El Paso, Texas with 51 people in the back. Three in the group were teenagers.

HSI Agents arrived at the scene and removed the people one by one from a basement apartment. Records show 47 of them were hiding behind a bookshelf. And it’s noted this one was one of multiple trips the truck made that month between the two cities. The U.S. Attorney charged the man with multiple federal crimes.

HSI says migrants they are finding in Albuquerque stash houses came through Arizona and Texas borders. | KRQE File
(HSI says migrants they are finding in Albuquerque stash houses came through Arizona and Texas borders. | KRQE File)

“This is the next stop for anything coming out of El Paso, Las Cruces, Deming, even, sometimes Douglas, Arizona,” Deputy SAC Stevens said. “We’re getting loads from Arizona that come up as well because it’s — there’s least resistance in New Mexico than there are other states.” What he means by “least resistance,” Stevens explained, is less enforcement. “So, you have Texas DPS that’s working, right? … You also have the state troopers that are working it. The same in Arizona. There’s additional pressure applied there. And you’ve got the National Guard that’s there,” he said. “Well, in New Mexico, you’ve got your Border Patrol resources and that’s it.” Beyond that, Stevens said Albuquerque’s an ideal stop with its two interstates — I-40 and I-25.

(Video above shows HSI Agents arresting suspected human smugglers in Albuquerque)

Sometimes, the U.S. Attorney said, the smugglers force migrants who cannot afford the smuggling fee to do their work for them. In March 2023, his Office charged five people HSI agents arrested at two stash houses, located on Cleghorn Road. Federal court records state the group admitted to being in the country illegally and were paying off their smuggling debt by looking after the houses and driving migrants to New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Florida. The documents also show agents located a large amount of cash, disabled cellphones, a gun, and a notebook ledger in the homes. It states, “The ledger contained a list of Hispanic names, addresses, cities, and what appeared to be payments made and payments owed.” A search of one of the suspect’s cellphones revealed the smugglers moved seven people from one of the homes just five hours before HSI arrived to execute its search warrants.  

“Questions that come to my mind is, could this be a problem? And my answer is yes. We want to make sure that we’re not behind the power curve. And I believe we already are,” Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen said. With his deputies responding first to a lot of these calls, he is working to develop training on how to identify the suspect immediately and protect the people being held in a house or vehicle. “We need to separate them. We don’t want people being revictimized who are just trying to come here to have a better life,” he explained. “It is an issue. I don’t, I don’t want it to become a crisis.”

HSI is grateful family members are comfortable calling to get help for their loved ones subjected to extortion. The agency is reminding everyone to speak up if they notice anything suspicious at a home in their area. You can call HSI at 866-347-2423. Stevens said he wants to remind the community, “Homeland Security Investigations’s mission is to disrupt and dismantle organization that exploits America’s trade, travel and finance. And so, we’re not out going, okay, you’re illegally present here, we’re coming to arrest you. That’s not what we’re coming to do.”

The U.S. Attorney said people smuggled into the country do not typically face charges for illegally entering. But that does not mean all of them get to stay in the U.S. He explained some are flown back to their home countries, others seek asylum and get to stay, and a handful stay because they become material witnesses in the case against their smuggler.

“They want to come here and they want that better way of life. Unfortunately, they’re not going through a travel agency,” Stevens said. “They’re not going through someone who’s going to look out for their best interests, who’s going to take care of them, ensure that they have good accommodations. They’re going through a transnational criminal organization, and that organization is here strictly to make money, and they don’t care how they make it.”

Human smuggling is a multi-billion-dollar criminal enterprise for cartels and human smuggling organizations, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. KRQE Investigates traveled to the border to speak with the agency and find out how smuggling operations work. This story will continue on November 2 with that answer and a first-hand account of a group’s journey to the U.S.