PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Human smuggling gangs are targeting victims on both sides of the border, holding immigrants for ransom, extorting thousands of dollars from their families and the kingpins are unlikely to face prosecution. That is according to a CBS 5 Investigation.
"The criminals get quite brazen," said one former human smuggler, or "coyote," who agreed to speak to CBS 5 Investigates on condition of anonymity.
He said the only real exposure for the gangs of smugglers is when they are actually crossing the desert with a group of immigrants. According to him, the people who arrange the trips and set things up have little concern that they're going to get caught.
"They just get really comfortable because they feel that they're not going to get reported," said the former coyote.
"You'll have cases where the smuggler gets caught. And the smuggler is willing to give up the person who's actually making the money. And the government has no interest in talking and learning who those people are," said Ray Ybarra Maldonado, who is an attorney who represents immigrants.
"All they want is the easy catch. The easy prosecution to keep those numbers up, as opposed to doing the real investigations and stopping the people who are profiting and abusing people," said Ybarra Maldonado.
The case of the pastor
CBS 5 began investigating this issue after a tip from a Valley family. They said a pastor was setting up immigrant families with unscrupulous smugglers in Mexico. Those smugglers were holding immigrants for ransom. One family paid $8,000 and said their family member never made it across the border.
"I think he's making good money on this," said one woman, whose identity we are concealing.
"They put her in a hotel room, and they took away her cell phone," she said, referring to the experience her family member endured in Mexico.
"They called me and said they need $3,000 more," she added.
She said she was directed to this smuggling group by the pastor. CBS 5 Investigates found the man does not work at or represent any one particular church here in the Valley. But he occasionally serves as a guest pastor at small Hispanic churches where many of the congregants are undocumented.
CBS 5 Investigates tracked down the man, whose real identity we were unable to confirm.
"I was only trying to help this family," he said.
"I did not know these people, and this situation has caused me much pain," he added.
Cartels and gangs increasingly smuggle humans
The former smuggler says what used to be primarily mom and pop operations have turned into big business for drug gangs and cartels.
"Today, you'll find more of the cartels. Cartels are doing it. So they're saying, 'We can make as much money running people as we do running drugs.' They treat it as a commodity," said the former smuggler.