HOUSTON – Two Mexican nationals pleaded guilty Thursday to their roles in an ongoing conspiracy to hold hostage and harbor smuggled aliens for ransom payments, announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson, Southern District of Texas.
The investigation was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) offices in Houston, Washington, D.C., and Virginia; and Prince William County, Va., and Houston Police Departments.
Virgilio De la Torre-Santana, 27, and Aduato Aguilar-Lara, 34, pleaded guilty Nov. 29 before U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller. De La Torre-Santana pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit hostage taking; Aguilar-Lara pleaded guilty to conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens.
On or about Aug. 17, family members and friends of two aliens who had been smuggled into the United States contacted local law enforcement in Prince William County, Va., to report receiving extortion calls demanding money for the aliens' release. Family members wired money, which was received and picked up at various locations in Harris County, Texas. The two aliens were subsequently released and transported to Virginia.
After arriving in Virginia, the aliens contacted law enforcement to report being held hostage against their will at a location that was later identified as a residence located on Amblewood Drive in Houston. A few weeks later, special agents executed a search warrant at that location and encountered 26 illegal aliens, at least two of whom were juveniles held hostage inside the residence. Special agents also encountered and arrested De La Torre-Santana, Aguilar-Lara and a third defendant, Job Solis-Benito, 23, also a Mexican national.
According to the aliens, upon arrival in Houston, they were forced to undress and were informed they had been "sold" and would not be released until family members made payments to the men holding them hostage. While held hostage at the residence, victims reported they were held in their underwear, in locked rooms with boarded up windows and in deplorable conditions. The victims also indicated they were guarded by men constantly armed with a handgun. Victims reported they were not allowed to leave the residence until payment was sent for their release. Some victims said they were threatened with harm or death if payment was not received.
At Thursday's hearing, De La Torre-Santana admitted he participated in the conspiracy to hold smuggled aliens hostage by making phone calls to relatives and friends of smuggled aliens, instructing them to send money via Western Union and/or Money Gram in exchange for the safe release of the aliens. He further admitted he recruited and paid other unindicted conspirators to pick up the money transfers at various locations within Harris County on his behalf.
Aguilar-Lara admitted to conspiring to harbor and conceal smuggled aliens inside the residence by providing the aliens with food, and by acting as a guard to ensure the aliens did not leave the residence until full payment for their release was received.
Sentencing for both De La Torre-Santana and Aguilar-Lara is scheduled for May 10. De La Torre-Santana faces up to life in prison; Aguilar-Lara faces up to 10 years imprisonment. Both also face a possible $250,000 fine.
The case against Solis-Benito is pending. He is charged with conspiring to commit hostage taking, hostage taking, conspiring to harbor illegal aliens, and harboring illegal aliens.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Casey N. MacDonald, Southern District of Texas, is prosecuting the case.