PHOENIX - A 9-year-old Ecuadorian boy was rescued Friday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents after allegedly being held hostage by a human smuggler for more than four months.
On Thursday, ICE HSI agents assigned to the Drop House Response Group in Phoenix received information from the ICE tip line about the youth, who became separated from his mother while they were illegally crossing the border in southern Arizona May 4. The smugglers demanded $4,000 for the child's release, which his parents were unable to pay.
On Friday, the HSI Assistant Attaché in Guayaquil, Ecuador arranged for ICE HSI agents in Arizona to discuss the case with the boy's mother and Ecuadorian law enforcement officials. The information they provided led Phoenix investigators to an apartment in the 900 block of West Main Street in Mesa. Agents initiated surveillance and confirmed the boy was being held there. Investigators then moved in, rescued the boy, and took custody of the suspected smuggler, Mario Fernandez-Fernandez.
The 25-year-old Mexican national made his initial appearance in federal court in Phoenix Monday where he was formally charged with human smuggling violations. A criminal complaint is simply the method by which a person is charged with criminal activity and raises no inference of guilt. An individual is presumed innocent until competent evidence is presented to a jury that establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Parents who contract with human smugglers should remember they are delivering their children into the hands of criminals, criminals who are often all too willing to put a child's welfare at stake for their own personal gain," said Matt Allen, special agent in charge of ICE HSI in Arizona.
"Collaboration between the authorities and the exchange of information is very important for the fight against organized crime affecting all our nations, so we stand together to fight these organizations operating in our country," said Renan Velasco, chief of the Judicial Police in Azuay Province, Ecuador.
ICE is working with the Ecuadorian consulate to reunite the boy with his parents.
ICE established the Drop House Response Group in September 2009 to aggressively target the infrastructure supporting drop houses and human smuggling organizations in Phoenix. Since its inception, the group has investigated hundreds of leads involving drop houses in the metropolitan area.