Along the southwest border of the U.S., stash houses are commonly used to conceal illegal immigrants smuggled into the United States. They are also used for human trafficking victims.
According to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) article, these houses can involve as many as 60 people stuffed into an enclosed space without electricity, clean water, sanitation facilities, or food. According to CBP, stash houses are where “human traffickers cram illegal aliens until they can distribute them around the country.”
Customs and Border Protection also reported uncovering 397 stash houses from Texas to California in a one-year period. In El Paso, Texas, U.S. Border Patrol agents discovered 145 undocumented migrants in just two stash houses, according to the El Paso Times.
Hear Dr. Sadulski’s testimony to Congress during “The Broken Path: How Transnational Criminal Organizations Profit from Human Trafficking at the Southwest Border.” During his testimony to the Homeland Security Committee on November 14, 2023, he discussed stash houses, insight from his interviews with former human traffickers, and details from his research on human trafficking.
The Use of Stash Houses
Stash houses have an essential role in human trafficking along the southwest border. They are located both on the Mexican and United States sides of the border.
Transnational criminal organizations use local gang members to manage stash houses in both countries. In some cases, stash houses have been described to me by people I have interviewed as a triangle, with three different houses involved in a specific human trafficking ring.
The first stash house is used as a processing center. It is used when migrants are brought to the border and do not have the money to pay for the transportation costs.
Migrants are stripped of their clothing or personal items and provided with different clothing by gang members managing the stash house. They will typically be photographed, and the total payment migrants owe will be recorded.
During this processing phase, victims are subjected to verbal or physical abuse as a form of coercion and control. Also, victims may be beaten or sexually assaulted.
Victims are then moved to a second stash house by traffickers, usually at night or in the early morning to avoid detection. In the second stash house, the actual exploitation occurs, such as sex trafficking or drug packaging.
Victims remain at the second house until their debt for transportation to the United States is paid. Once that final payment occurs, victims are moved to the third stash house. At the third stash house, the victim’s confiscated clothing and personal property are returned.
Victims typically receive better treatment, including meals, at the third stash house. They are permitted to remain at the third stash house until transportation to their final destination can be arranged or they can leave.
While being moved from one stash house to another, victims are blindfolded or other measures are taken so victims can’t see where a stash house is located. Stash houses may be disguised as business buildings with locked bedrooms in the rear of the building.
Security cameras are typically used at stash houses to enable traffickers to extend surveillance to nearby road intersections. These cameras allow traffickers to see who may be approaching their stash houses.
Window coverings and reinforced windows that are difficult to break are common in stash houses along with handcuffs, chains, and household modifications that include soundproofing. Traffickers may even have an escape path developed at the stash house.
Transnational criminal organizations create an illusion that no crime is being committed. They convince their victims that they are just helping people to find a better life since the U.S. border system is set up to detect illicit drugs instead of trafficked people.
How Traffickers Avoid Detection of Their Stash Houses
Many transnational criminal organizations depend on people who aid the facilitation of human trafficking. They provide blanket security for everyone involved in human trafficking by tipping them off about law enforcement operations or other threats to their business.
These people are put into place by transnational criminal organizations to monitor for threats. This personal network ranges from Central America countries, through Mexico and into the United States.
Different transnational criminal organizations have their own people who aid in human trafficking and drug trafficking. These people may include immigration officers, border officials and even agents of foreign travel agencies who may be complicit in human trafficking and drug trafficking.
It is not uncommon for paperwork to be doctored to aid in trafficking people. If they are given false documents, travel agents can arrange for travel that appears to be legitimate.
For example, a husband and wife may move children from Central America through Mexico, then into California’s San Diego under the pretense that the children accompanying them are their own. Once in the United States, these children can be sold to a family who wants kids but does not wish to go through the legal adoption process.
Traffickers with these types of connections can easily move people to the United States. Traffickers without these connections are more likely to be those moving people across the desert into the United States.
Reporting Stash Houses
Stash houses can be difficult to detect because they can blend very well into a neighborhood; they are often rental homes with attached garages. If you observe suspicious activity that may be associated with a stash house or other illicit activity, report it to the authorities.
According to Corrections 1, this suspicious activity can include:
- An unkempt yard
- A mailbox filled with mail or many ads around the house’s front door
- Vehicles such as vans and pickup trucks going into the house’s garage at different hours, especially at night or in the early morning
- Different vehicles reusing the same license plates or having buyer/dealer tags
- Caretakers or homeowners who keep to themselves, discourage visitors, and don’t appear to hold regular jobs
Suspicious activity that may be related to human trafficking can be reported to Customs and Border Protection at 1-866-347-2423 or through an online tip form. Victims of human trafficking can also receive support from the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.