On Thursday, December 3, police responded to a call about a man running down the street in his underwear in southwest Houston, and discovered nearly thirty people being held hostage in an area rented home. Most of the victims, 28 men and one woman, had been stripped of clothing, possibly to inhibit escape attempts, and Houston police turned over the investigation to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as a possible human smuggling operation.
ICE agents subsequently arrested Mauro Dominguez-Maldonado, a 36-year-old Honduran national, at the scene. He is scheduled to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Frances Stacy on Monday, December 7, and faces up to 10 years in prison and a possible $250,000 maximum fine if convicted.
Dominguez-Maldonado was found among the 29 victims being held in the alleged stash house, which reportedly had boarded up windows and dead-bolt locks on the inside doors.
The criminal complaint filed in federal court alleges Dominguez-Maldonado was in charge of watching over the aliens and performing multiple tasks in furtherance of a human smuggling operation.
Victims were reportedly from various Latin American countries, including Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Cuba, and police say they were picked up by alleged smugglers in the Brownsville area last week.
Human smuggling along the southern border can be a profitable venture for so-called coyotes, who charge thousands of dollars per person to bring a wide array of people into the country without undergoing background or medical screening. Under the Trump administration, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reports that 402 miles of the border wall system were reinforced or expanded, but long stretches of the 1,954-mile border remain open.
Border apprehensions dropped in 2020 likely due to COVID-19 conditions, but at an October press conference, CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan warned that numbers would likely rise as the pandemic eased. “In fact, we’re anticipating it’s likely to be worse due to the deteriorating and worsening economic conditions, not only in Mexico, but in the entire Western Hemisphere, that was exasperated by COVID-19.”
Houston has been known as a notorious human trafficking hotspot, and in 2016 nearly half of all Texas tips to the National Human Trafficking Hotline came from the greater Houston area.
Earlier this year, ICE announced that its Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) office in Houston had arrested 46 people for charges related to human trafficking and rescued five victims as the result of a sting operation.
Last month ICE announced the arrest and deportation of an El Salvadoran national residing in Houston who was a documented member of the MS-13 gang, and the federal agency also filed charges against five other illegal residents and gang members for alleged participation in a brutal 2018 murder on the southwest side of the greater Houston area.
Recent reports indicate that nearly half a million illegals are residing in the greater Houston area, and the county has now established an Immigrant Legal Services Fund (ISLF) to provide tax-payer funded legal representation for those facing deportation. Harris County will also seek to become part of SAFE, a national network of cities and counties offering public defenders for illegal residents regardless of criminal history.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden vowed to introduce immigration reform legislation during his first 100 days in office and has said he would fire ICE agents who arrest and deport illegal immigrants not guilty of felony crimes, and that he did not consider “drunk driving as a felony,” although repeat drunk driving offenses are considered felony offenses in some cases.
After news broke of the police rescue, NBC affiliate Click2Houston reported on a local woman who said her cousin was one of the 29 victims held hostage. She explained that her family had paid $11,000 to have the young man smuggled into the country, but that the Mexican gang Los Zetas had abducted and held him for a $3,000 ransom. The woman said her cousin had been sent back to Mexico following his rescue.