By SUSAN CARROLL HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Within days of being kidnapped at gunpoint and held hostage in an east Houston trailer park, Israel Ramirez overheard one of his captors making plans in the next room.
"I'm not going to kill them with a gun," the kidnapper reportedly said in Spanish. "I'll stab them, cut them up."
The abductors told Ramirez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, that he needed $2,000 by 5 p.m. or they would kill him. Ramirez called a friend to raise money: "The police arrested me last night," he said. "They are asking for $2,000 for me to be released."
The friend asked which police station he was in, but before he could answer, one of the abductors took the phone away.
"Oh you are trying to be a smart one," the man said. "Do you know who we are?"
That April 7 phone call - detailed in a criminal complaint - led members of the FBI's Houston Division Violent Crime Task Force to the trailer, where they arrested two Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members after a brief but tense standoff.
Authorities rescued Ramirez and two other illegal immigrants - including a 15-year-old - who reported being kidnapped from another stash house, beaten and held at gunpoint in the trailer while their captors extorted money from their loved ones.
The case highlights what some law enforcement officials in Texas have identified as an alarming trend - the "hijacking" of groups of illegal immigrants by members of MS-13, a notorious street gang with ties in Central and South America.
"Intelligence indicates that they (MS-13) are continually participating in 'coyote rips' in which they commandeer control of a group of human smuggling victims," according to the 2010 Texas Gang Threat Assessment by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Rival smuggling organizations and street gangs have been involved in stealing loads of illegal immigrants for years, authorities said, as smuggling fees have skyrocketed amid the U.S. border crackdown.
Patrick McElwain, assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Houston, said MS-13's involvement in human smuggling and human trafficking has been increasing locally and nationally.
Houston is home to the largest concentration of MS-13 members in Texas, though the numbers are relatively small in comparison to some other gangs, like the Mexican Mafia.
'Money to be made'
The gang's motivation for executing "coyote rips" - the kidnapping of loads of illegal immigrants - is clear-cut, McElwain said.
"There is money to be made for the organization," he said.
Brian Ritchie, who leads the violent crimes and gangs task force for the FBI's Houston division, said the smuggling rip-offs are "crimes of opportunity" for gang members and are vastly under-reported.
"Probably 90 percent of the cases go unreported," he said. "The only ones that are reported are when shots are fired.
"It's kind of like the home invasion of a drug dealer who may lose kilos of cocaine or marijuana or cash derived from drug sales," he said. "They're not going to report it. Really, when you think about it, it's the perfect crime."
But the rip-off that landed three illegal immigrants in the east Houston trailer park did not go as planned.
A criminal complaint filed in federal court in Houston details an April 7 conversation between one of the kidnapped illegal immigrants, a woman he called for help paying his ransom and one of his captors.
After Ramirez pleaded for money, the captor took the phone and told the woman he was looking for a smuggler named "Chino" and found Ramirez and a handful of other illegal immigrants instead.
"Now someone has to pay," the kidnapper told her.
He hung up and someone called back with information on a Western Union account in Houston. Instead of paying out, the woman called police.
The cellphone records led members of the violent crime task force to surround a trailer at 14017 Longview on April 8.
Jose Isidro Morales, 37, and Juan Carlos Rodriguez, 22, who both sported MS-13 tattoos on their torsos, surrendered after Rodriguez briefly pointed a Ruger 9?mm semiautomatic pistol in the direction of law enforcement, according to federal agents. Agents also confiscated a Bowie knife, a .38-caliber revolver and a semiautomatic rifle.
In the two days Ramirez was held hostage in the trailer, he told investigators, he saw six or seven other suspects come and go.
Another victim, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, told investigators the kidnappers tied his hands behind his head and kicked him in the ribs and throat. He saw them take cocaine and smoke marijuana, he said.
"The guy with the tattoos said he will kill me if I don't pay the money," he told investigators.
MS-13 AT A GLANCE
MS-13 - or Mara Salvatrucha - is an international street gang with roots in El Salvador and much of Central and South America. MS-13 has forged alliances with Mexican drug cartels including the notorious Los Zetas, according to the 2010 Texas Gang Threat Assessment. The gang's numbers are largest in southwest Houston, where gang members have extorted illegal immigrants and small businesses owners, charging a cuota - a kind of informal tax - in order to avoid being harassed or assaulted. The gang has been implicated in a string of local murders, robberies and extortion attempts.
Recent cases include:
Feb. 10: Two MS-13 gang members who drove from Houston to South Carolina to carry out a murder-for-hire for a Honduran client are found guilty by a jury in South Carolina. They are awaiting sentencing.
April 2009: Gang member Albin Zelaya-Zelaya is sentenced to life in prison for burglarizing a southwest Houston apartment after jurors learned he also is wanted for a double-decapitation murder in Honduras. Police said Zelaya-Zelaya's MS-13 clique may be responsible for a string of local crimes, including at least four kidnapping cases that targeted illegal immigrants or their smugglers.
January 2009: Gang members are caught on surveillance video at a Houston hair salon threatening employees with guns and a machete. One employee, a young woman, was sexually assaulted. Seven gang members were arrested and sentenced on state charges in connection with the case. The ringleader in the case is serving 70 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Whom to call
Crime victims are encouraged to contact law enforcement at www.stophoustongangs.org or call the FBI at 713-693-5000.