Federal prosecutors announced the arrest Tuesday of three people accused of a grisly extortion scheme against illegal immigrants trying to make their way into California that involved kidnapping, rape and exorbitant demands for cash to secure the migrants’ release.
Investigators said they are aware of at least five kidnappings with similar tactics, including using the electronics section of stores like Walmart as meet-up locations to collect ransom but refusing to release the migrants and demanding still more money.
The kidnappers preyed on migrants coming during the current border surge, which has spawned reports of increased abuses of those trying to jump the border, believing they have a better chance of success under the Biden administration.
While extortion is a disturbingly common occurrence for illegal immigrants, federal law enforcement usually sees it only when it happens on the U.S. side, after people have crossed and are being held at stash houses here.
But in this case, investigators said, it was a cross-border operation, with the kidnapping ring approaching would-be migrants while they were in Mexicali, offering to smuggle them in for a fee, then making the exorbitant ransom demands.
One woman told investigators after she agreed to pay $14,000 to be smuggled in, she instead was held at gunpoint and forced to talk to her husband as part of the ransom demand. She also said she was raped and beaten.
Her husband paid $19,000, but then was told he had to come up with another $1,500. He pleaded that he couldn’t scrounge the cash and was begging for money on the streets, and his wife eventually was released.
In another kidnapping in late May, a man said his wife had made arrangements to be smuggled into the U.S. and the husband was to pay $12,000. He soon began to receive messages demanding $15,000, which he turned over at a Walmart. But then he was told it would take another $16,000, an FBI agent said in an affidavit.
Investigators obtained Walmart security video showing the ransom exchanges and were able to tie one of the collectors to a car in the parking lot, which they then used to track down his identity.
Arrested were Edgar Adrian Lemus, Francisco Javier Hernandez Martinez and Junior Almendarez Martinez. All are charged with money laundering conspiracy.
Once investigators identified the men late last month, they tracked them and saw what they believed to be other attempts at ransom exchanges.
In one, at the same Walmart as a previous exchange, agents say they saw Mr. Lemus meet with someone in the electronics section and collect a white bag. Agents tried to talk with the person who handed over the bag, but the person was too scared to talk.
In Texas, authorities said they broke up another extortion operation after migrants called the police saying they were being held against their will.
They told responding Border Patrol officers that they were being held in an RV until their families made additional $1,500 payments.
Unable to pay, the migrants escaped and used a cellphone they found in the RV to call 911.