(The Center Square) – El Paso, Texas, is a central destination for human smuggling and extortion, the FBI El Paso Field Office warns. The FBI has been issuing warnings and alerts nearly every month this year about kidnapping and extortion crimes occurring in the border town.

El Paso is located directly across the Rio Grande River from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, one of the most violent places in the world. The Juárez Cartel and street gangs associated with it, La Línea and Bario Azteca, are warring with the Sinaloa Cartel for control of a multi-billion dollar human trafficking and drug trade.

In February, FBI El Paso announced it was continuing “to see an increase in crimes involving kidnapping/virtual kidnapping extortion over the past year.”

“These types of cases are tragic,” Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey R. Downey said. “It’s not the amount of money involved; it’s the fact innocent victims are tricked into believing their loved ones are in danger and the horror and helplessness they feel as they scramble to secure what they think is their release.”

Between February and June, the FBI and its task force partners rescued 88 people who paid to be smuggled into the U.S., Downey said. Once they got to El Paso, they were held for ransom against their will in stash houses in squalid and dangerous conditions.

The FBI has seen a recent shift in the level of extortions calls being made to family members in other countries to pay a ransom, Downey said. Ransoms can be up to $10,000 per person.

“Kidnapping extortion crimes exploit victims through threat and/or actual harm (physical or emotional), arrest, legal action, or other demands in an attempt to force the victim into handing over money,” the FBI states. “These threats are aimed at the victim’s person or property or to their family and friends. Virtual kidnapping for ransom and traditional kidnappings have increased in the region and are some of the most common extortion crimes investigated by FBI El Paso.”

Human smuggling is a felony, according to state and federal law, carrying different sentences depending on the degree of harm inflicted.

In April, FBI-El Paso issued a second warning, calling on the local community for help. “We need the help of the entire community to see suspicious activity occurring in our neighborhoods,” Downey said. “We are asking community members to help eradicate this violent crime from existing in our city.”

In June, FBI El Paso’s task force, working with U.S. Border Patrol El Paso Sector agents and Texas Department of Public Safety officers, first rescued a group of 14 people being held against their will in stash houses. Then they rescued 23 people being held against their will and threatened in a residential area in Northeast El Paso. They were citizens of Guatemala, Ecuador and Mexico.

Stash houses can be homes, sheds, or any structure used to hide illegal activity from law enforcement, the FBI explains. They’re “meant to blend in, so they can be found even in the middle of a city or gated community.” They often create life threatening conditions because they aren’t adequately ventilated, cooled or heated.

Citizens can identify a stash house by a lot of trash placed outside, or multiple water jugs or disposable plates lying on the ground. Different types of vehicles, especially vans and pickup trucks, often are seen entering and exiting the property at all hours of the day or night, and the vehicles have different license plates, including paper “buyer” or “dealer” tags.

Those with questions or tips are encouraged to contact the FBI El Paso office at 915-832-5000. Tips can be submitted anonymously at https://tips.fbi.gov.

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