Friona woman charged with holding 17 undocumented immigrants hostage

A Friona woman allegedly who held 17 undocumented immigrants hostage in her home has been charged with a federal crime, announced U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas Chad E. Meacham.

Manuela Magdalena Jimon Castro, 30, was charged via criminal complaint with alien harboring. She made her initial appearance Thursday before Magistrate Judge Lee Ann Reno.

According to the complaint, Castro and a family member partnered with an illegal immigrant smuggling operation to hold undocumented individuals hostage at their home, threatening to deprive them of food and water and refusing to allow them to leave until they paid $11,000 to $12,000 or “worked off” the debt.

The investigation began when law enforcement in California received a tip from a woman who claimed her sister was being held for ransom in Texas. The woman reported that her sister had traveled from Guatemala to Mexico with the intention of seeking asylum in the United States, then crossed the border at the behest of a Mexican cartel who held her captive. She said her sister sent her a pin of a location in Friona before she escaped.

In a subsequent interview with law enforcement, the woman said that while in Mexico, she was forced into a car at gunpoint by individuals she believed to be members of a smuggling cartel. After several months, they walked her across the southern border, then shuttled her from house to house in Texas and New Mexico, refusing to let her go until she paid off her debt. Eventually, she ended up at the Castro residence, where she was told she would be detained until she paid $12,000.

After speaking with the woman and another individual previously detained at the home, law enforcement searched the Castro home. Inside, they recovered 17 undocumented immigrants, including two minor children. Most of the individuals attempted to hide, concealing themselves in the attic, in cupboards, or inside totes covered in blankets. Agents noted that the home contained very little furniture, save mattresses and blankets for a large number of individuals spread across the floor.

In interviews with law enforcement, the recovered immigrants admitted that they had entered the country illegally with smugglers. They indicated that the smugglers had confiscated their cell phones, and only allowed intermittent contact with family members in order to obtain money to pay their “entrance fees.” Several stated that they believed they had to stay at the residence in Friona until their entrance fee had been paid in full.

A criminal complaint is merely an allegation of criminal conduct, not evidence. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

If convicted, she faces up to five years in federal prison.

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