5 accused of human smuggling after 97 people found locked in Texas house, feds say

Five people accused of human smuggling have been arrested after the discovery of a stash house in Texas with nearly 100 undocumented immigrants locked inside, officials say.

Houston police investigating a kidnapping report found 97 people, mostly men wearing only underwear, huddled inside a suburban house on the southwest side of the city, according to a criminal complaint filed in a Texas federal court.

The police department called the discovery as a “big surprise” and turned over the human smuggling investigation to federal authorities.

The five people in custody include Marina Garcia-Diaz, 22, El Salvador; Henry Licona-Larios, 31, Honduras; Kevin Licona-Lopez, 25, Honduras; Marco Baca-Perez 30, Mexico; and Marcelo Garcia-Palacios, 21, Mexico.

‘Please help me’

On Thursday, a woman called Houston police to report the kidnapping of her brother, officials say. The woman told investigators she paid $11,000 to human smugglers in February to bring her brother to the U.S. from Honduras, according to the criminal complaint.

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She said the smugglers told her to bring another $6,300 to a Walgreens in Houston or else they would kill her brother, the complaint says. After leaving from Dallas, they called the woman and put her brother on the phone and she provided police with a recording.

“Please help me,” her brother said repeatedly, according to the complaint.

Worried for her brother’s life, the woman called police, who investigated through the night and secured a search warrant for a house where police say cell phones used by the suspects “pinged.”

Inside the stash house

The Houston police SWAT division executed the search warrant and found dozens of people inside two rooms — which had been locked with deadbolts from the outside to prevent escape, officials say. Several reported symptoms of COVID-19, including loss of smell and taste and fever. The city health department went to the house to conduct testing for the virus.

In other rooms, police reported finding cash, ledgers and “human smuggling payment records.”

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A witness said one suspect told the people they would be put in “four pieces of wood,” meaning a coffin, if they didn’t pay, according to the complaint.

“We haven’t heard anything from any of the neighbors as far as anything that would lead them to believe that there was something like that going on inside,” Houston Assistant Police Chief Daryn Edwards said Friday. “It’s very surprising.”

Those found inside the home were taken to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in nearby Conroe.

The five suspects were scheduled to appear in Houston federal court Monday afternoon on charges of harboring non-citizens for commercial or financial gain. They could go to prison up to 10 years if convicted.

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