Woman accused of human smuggling said she, two others acted as ‘stash house operators’

El Mirage police arrested Tania Estudillo Hernandez for human smuggling, money laundering, illegally conducting or participating in an illegal enterprise and co
Published: Sep. 26, 2022 at 1:49 PM MST
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EL MIRAGE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- A 24-year-old El Mirage woman arrested for human trafficking told police her boyfriend, her brother, and herself were working for “the boss” as stash house operators.

On Friday, the El Mirage Police Department responded to a suspicious call for help at a home near El Mirage Road and Thunderbird Drive. The woman calling told officers that the house had multiple kidnapped hostages inside, one of whom was her husband. She said that she had paid $9,000 to have her husband brought into the United States from Guatemala and that he’d arrived at the house on Sept. 2. She said her husband was allowed only one phone call a day by those holding him.

Officers came to the house before midnight and a woman, later identified as Tania Hernandez Estudillo, came to the door. She showed officers her Mexico voting card and said that she and her brother were home. The officer noticed that the only furniture in the house was a couch and a foldable white table on concrete floors. She told the officers she’d only lived in the house for about six months.

Around 1 a.m. early Saturday morning, an officer parked near the house saw a Chevy Malibu’s lights flash as though someone had unlocked the doors. According to court documents, he then saw Estudillo and another woman leave the house and get into the car. When he stopped the two, the other woman told the officer that she had come to the U.S. on Aug. 25. She said she paid 25,000 in Guatemalan currency, called Quetzal, upfront and that she still owed 75,000 in the same currency. She said when she got to the house, Estudillo told her to call her family to pay the rest of the money.

According to court documents, when the woman’s family paid the money, they were reportedly asked for even more. The woman was then told by Estudillo and the two men that “the boss” wouldn’t let her leave until more money was paid. The woman said she, along with 10 other undocumented immigrants in the house, was told that they weren’t allowed to leave and that Estudillo, her boyfriend, and her brother had taken their shoes and clothes away.

The woman said Estudillo’s boyfriend carried a gun often, and that she was afraid of him since he, Estudillo, and Estudillo’s brother were “in charge” at the house. According to court documents, the woman said that when officers arrived at the house late Friday night, Estudillo, her boyfriend, and her brother woke them up while they were sleeping upstairs. The woman said Estudillo told her that they had to leave in the car while the two men could leave with the 10 other immigrants. As of Monday afternoon, the men and those 10 others have not been found.

“Oh wow, crazy cause you think this is a nice neighborhood,” Nelson Gonzalez, a neighbor, said. “You have kids, you have neighbors, friends, it is a little bit scary.” Another neighbor Esmeralda Zamora said, “I never thought it would happen in this neighborhood. We didn’t know that was going on, and we didn’t even seen anything.”

Estudillo was then arrested at the scene, telling officers she’d come to the U.S. between 5 and 6 months ago. She said she hadn’t been able to pay the smuggling fees when she got to Arizona, and that she was told to work off the costs by acting as a stash house operator or be sent back to Mexico. Estudillo, her boyfriend, and her brother were members of the organization and reported to someone called “the boss” via WhatsApp.

Court documents say she told police that anywhere between 80 to 100 immigrants passed through the house every month and that she would tell immigrants that they couldn’t leave because they still owed money. Estudillo said she also takes immigrants’ phones away when they show up at the house but did not know of any guns in the house. Investigators searched the house and found clothes and shoes in black plastic trash bags, a piece of mail in the bedroom addressed to Estudillo, more clothes, and a purse that had two handguns inside. One of the guns had been reported stolen.

Estudillo is facing various charges including one count of kidnapping for ransom, knowingly initiating money laundering, illegal enterprise, conspiracy, and possessing a weapon as a prohibited person. She is being held on a secured appearance bond of $35,000. EMPD, DHS, and Immigration and Customs are still investigating.