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Thursday, April 26, 2007 | Cortez Avenue in Escondido looks like the stereotypical subdivision street. There are American flags fluttering in the breeze and picket fences rub shoulders with spring blooms. Scooters and dog toys litter front yards.

In the early hours of April 15, officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement knocked on the door of 1809 Cortez Ave. Inside the single-family home, they say they found eight illegal immigrants imprisoned in a back bedroom. The room’s doors had been wired shut and its windows had been boarded up. The men had recently been smuggled across the Mexican border, officials say. Testimony from a woman operating the safe house would later reveal that 31 men had been held in the home three days before.

Agents had been led to the house by a scrap of paper.

The previous evening, about 35 miles south of Escondido in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, two men had arrived at a house on Franklin Street, according to police reports. Police allege the men brought with them Martin Guadarama, an illegal immigrant from Mexico whom they had smuggled into the country a few days before. The men, Luis Camacho Ventura and Mateo Alvarado, were there to pick up a ransom payment. Police officers said they had called Guadarama’s wife demanding $1,300 and threatening to kill their hostage.

“They told her they would dismember her husband and spread him all over the city if she didn’t pay,” said Lt. John Leas of the San Diego Police Department’s robbery division.

Guadarama’s wife called the SDPD and, when the smugglers arrived to collect the money, they were apprehended by police officers. The officers searched the men, finding a letter addressed to Ventura at the Escondido address. Alvarado also had a handcuff key and a large amount of money, police say. Guadarama told the detectives that other immigrants were being held at the house against their will.

The eight men discovered locked up in the safe house in Escondido are a sliver of the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants smuggled into California every year. For many of those immigrants, the harrowing and dangerous journey does not end when they cross the border. Many immigrants smuggled into the country find they are far from free — or safe — by the time they reach safe houses in the United States.

It costs immigrants about $1,000 to $1,500 for the guided journey into the country. When they arrive, the immigrants often contact friends and relatives in the United States who pay for their release from the smugglers. But sometimes, as with the Guadarama case, those friends and relatives can’t or won’t pay and the smugglers resort to threats.

Sometimes the immigrants are enslaved by the smuggling ring and are kept locked up in the back rooms of ordinary suburban houses like the one on Cortez Avenue until the smugglers can put them to work to pay off their debt.

“Living in the shadows makes you vulnerable,” said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego,

Reaching the Safe House

  • The Issue: Eight illegal immigrants were found locked in the back room of a house in Escondido last week after San Diego Police officers responded to an alleged kidnapping in Barrio Logan.
  • What It Means: Investigators think they may have uncovered a large trafficking operation. Others think the immigrants may have simply been customers who paid coyotes to transport them across the border with Mexico.
  • The Bigger Picture: Experts said human smuggling and human trafficking are commonplace in San Diego. Human smuggling involves the transportation of illegal immigrants across the border for a fee, while human traffickers often enslave their human cargo, forcing them to work for an indefinite period to pay off their debt.

Ventura and Alvarado have been charged with human trafficking. That’s a more serious crime than the human smuggling typically associated with coyotes. Smuggling becomes trafficking when the people brought across the border are kept against their will and are placed in indentured servitude to the organization that brought them here. Often, immigrants will have all of their documents confiscated by the smugglers while they pay off an ever-swelling debt.

Essentially, the immigrants become slaves to the organization that brought them across the border. They work in anything from prostitution to farm laboring.

David Kyle, a sociology professor at the University of California, Davis, who has written several books about human smuggling, said it can be difficult to differentiate between prisoners of an organized human trafficking ring and paying customers waiting for their sponsors to arrive and pay their “bail.”

“At the safe house point, both groups look very, very similar,” Kyle said. “It’s at that safe house point where they’re either given the option to go ahead and pay off their debt and they’re let go, or they’re not smugglers, they’re definitely traffickers — criminal syndicates.”

According to court documents, the safe house itself was being operated by Tamara Lynn Dudoit, who rented the single-family home and lived there with her two children. Dudoit has been charged with harboring illegal immigrants. The court documents say the room where the undocumented immigrants were being held was “secured to the extent that the doors could be locked with wires and the windows had been boarded shut to prevent escape.”

I.C.E. Agent Tom Miller, who is investigating the case, could not discuss the details of the investigation. However, he said the operation uncovered in Escondido seemed to have the hallmarks of a significant human trafficking network.

“This certainly wasn’t a mom-and-pop organization,” he said.

According to the court documents, Dudoit told investigators that the men found in the house were being held while the organization she works for waited for the men’s sponsors to pay a $1,300 to $1,500 smuggling fee for bringing them across the border. She said she did not know of any threats made to the men or to their sponsors.

Neighbors of the safe house said they had not noticed anything unusual about the goings-on at 1809. Ken Kulick, who lives two doors down, said he had never heard any unusual sounds coming from the house and had never noticed many people coming and going.

“This is a busy street, so I guess you wouldn’t really notice,” he said.

Kyle said human smuggling organizations run the gamut from small groups that bring people across the border illicitly for a fee to large organized crime syndicates that traffic people across the border to essentially work as slaves for the criminals. He said the Guadarama case appeared to be a simple smuggling deal gone wrong, and that organized traffickers do not risk exposing their operations for the sake of $1,300.

“Slaves are extremely profitable,” he said. “They would have just taken these guys and put them to work right away and they’d be making a lot of money immediately. This looks much more like a smuggling organization.”

Considering the two men who were captured with Guadarama have been charged with trafficking, Kyle said one or more of the men being held captive could have testified that they were being held in the safe house against their will, which would explain the more serious charges.

Dane Bowen, assistant special agent in charge of human trafficking at I.C.E., said three of the immigrants discovered at the safe house remain in the United States as material witnesses. The other men have been deported to Mexico, he said.

Alvarado and Ventura were arraigned on April 18. Both pleaded not guilty. Neither man had been appointed an attorney at press time. Attempts were made to contact the men in jail but were unsuccessful. The defendants will appear in superior court for a preliminary hearing on May 1. If convicted, the men face between three and five years in prison.

Calls made to Dudoit’s attorney were not returned.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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