An Iowa woman and her husband were arrested in San Diego Wednesday on accusations they helped smuggle Guatemalan citizens into the U.S. and harbored them illegally inside their Sioux City, Iowa home.
Federal court documents tell the story of an undocumented Guatemalan refugee girl who claims the suspects locked her in a room and sexually assaulted her. The alleged young victim told investigators the room was furnished with only a metal bed and a bucket for her waste. She claimed the suspect raped her repeatedly.
The alleged assault happened just days after the girl and her father were released from an overcrowded ICE detention center in El Paso, Texas and flown to the defendants’ Iowa home.
The Trump Administration has been criticized for its handling of an influx of migrants from Central America. Overcrowding at detention facilities in El Paso, San Diego, and other border cities has resulted in many migrants being released from custody pending a hearing, and finding their way to dangerous, sometimes violent smugglers.
That turn of events is described in the July 11 criminal case filed in San Diego Federal Court against Amy Francisco and her husband, Cristobal Francisco-Nicolas, accused of harboring Guatemalan refugees inside their Sioux City home.
According to the complaint, the minor girl, identified by the initials “A.B.F.” and her father, both from Guatemala, crossed the border less than a quarter mile from the El Paso Port of Entry on May 29. They were apprehended shortly after crossing the Rio Grande River.
Border Agents at the El Paso Detention Center released the girl and her father, identified in the complaint as Fernando Bartolo, the following day.
Amy Francisco and her husband, Cristobal Francisco-Nicolas, immediately flew the girl and her father to Omaha, Nebraska. From there, the father and daughter were driven to Francisco’s home in Sioux City.
According to the complaint, the coupled locked the minor girl “in a room with a metal bed and bucket for bodily waste.” Francisco-Nicolas allegedly raped her as his wife “watched it happen from the door to the locked room.”
The girl told Sioux City police officers that Francisco-Nicolas raped her several times the following morning, and that she managed to escape while her rapist was at work and his wife was sleeping. The girl told investigators she went “looking for someone who spoke Spanish to help her.”
Police found her a short time later roaming the streets of Sioux City.
Police interviewed suspects Francisco-Nicolas and his wife Amy on June 19. During that interview the couple allegedly admitted they had sent money to Guatemala to pay the cost of smuggling the minor girl and her father into the U.S. According to court documents, the suspects also admitted they arranged for the victims to travel to Omaha, and later Sioux City.
Francisco-Nicolas asked for an attorney when police questioned him about the alleged rape.
During a search of the couple’s Sioux City home, police found three other Guatemalan citizens inside the residence, as well as Amy Francisco’s father, Ronald Craig.
In a subsequent interview, Craig reportedly told police that his son-in-law and daughter “have assisted approximately ten family members and friends of (Francisco-Nicolas) with traveling to the U.S. from Guatemala.”
Craig also told authorities that they would require the undocumented immigrants to bring a child with them to the border, and “upon entering the U.S. they must turn themselves in…”
If they made their way to Sioux City, according to Craig’s statement to police, the undocumented immigrants would find work and pay the couple for lodging as well as reimburse them for travel expenses.
The Guatemalans living in the couple’s home were also interviewed and confirmed that they paid Francisco-Nicolas and his wife for rent and food as well as the cost of smuggling them into the country.
Federal prosecutors confirmed that Francisco-Nicolas and his wife were arrested in San Diego and the case will likely be moved to a federal court in Iowa.
San Diego immigration attorney Andrew Nietor told NBC 7 Investigates that these smuggling operations are likely happening with increased frequency.
“The Administration’s policies have instilled fear to go to law enforcement,” Nietor said.
“I suspect that this type of horrific case happens much more frequently because victims are afraid to report crimes,” Nietor said. “Together with a growing fear of arrest and detention at the border, family separation, and placement in squalid detention centers, trafficking is happening much more often and smugglers are acting almost with impunity. This vulnerable population is made even more vulnerable.”
Nietor also said migrant smugglers are emboldened as a result of the Trump Administration policies.
Added Nietor, “Instead of an orderly process for refugees that would include trying to find family members where they can reside, or detaining them close to family so they can at least find legal counsel, DHS is detaining and sending them to remote facilities where there are no resources.”