For at least three years, a couple in the town of Pacific ran a smuggling operation that brought illegal immigrants from Mexico to be housed in the garage of their home, where the immigrants lived as indentured servants while paying off their smuggling debt, according to court documents.

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For at least three years, a couple in the town of Pacific ran a smuggling operation that brought illegal immigrants from Mexico to be housed in the garage of their home, where the immigrants lived as indentured servants while paying off their smuggling debt, according to court documents.

Maria Bartola Santos-Gonzalez and Juan Gonzalez-Guerra slipped illegal immigrants from Aguascalientes, Mexico, across the border and up into Washington state, for $3,000 to $3,500 each, federal and state documents allege.

Among their victims was an 8-year-old girl, whom the couple brought to the United States in 2007, along with her parents and brother. The girl described to a school counselor and to a Pacific detective how Gonzalez-Guerra, 55, a legal permanent resident, sexually molested her.

Her 7-year-old brother told of how Santos-Gonzalez, 63, a U.S. citizen, would sometimes tie him up, cover his mouth with a handkerchief or tape and beat him with a stick, leaving purple marks.

The family said they were fed twice a day and a chain was kept around the refrigerator so they couldn’t get more food.

Family members told a Pacific detective the couple threatened to “cut out their tongues” if they told anyone about what happened and told the immigrants the police wouldn’t listen to them anyway because they were undocumented.

Phony work permits

The allegations are laid out in a federal grand-jury indictment that describes a smuggling network that included the couple’s son and others and stretched from Pacific to the west central Mexican city of Aguascalientes.

It says Santos-Gonzalez arranged for phony work permits so the smuggled immigrants could find employment once they got here. Most found jobs in construction and agriculture.

Santos-Gonzalez and Gonzalez-Guerra face multiple counts of federal conspiracy to smuggle and harbor aliens. Individually, Santos-Gonzalez was charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud. At their arraignment last month, both pleaded not guilty to all counts.

In addition to the federal charges, the state of Washington is charging Gonzalez-Guerra with first-degree child molestation and his wife with third-degree assault on a child.

The couple were first arrested on those charges by Pacific police in July, posted bail, and then were rearrested in October after the federal grand-jury indictment.

A Feb. 11 hearing has been set for the state case and March 10 for the federal.

“This is the kind of crime that is not so unusual as it is difficult to uncover because the nature of the crime is to conceal,” said Ye-Ting Woo, assistant U.S. Attorney. “It’s exploitation of immigrants.”

If convicted, Gonzalez-Guerra faces possible deportation after serving prison time. His attorney declined comments. His wife’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

The immigrants the couple brought here might qualify for certain types of legal immigration status. Their current addresses are undisclosed.

Pacific police say they were surprised to learn of a smuggling ring operating within their small town, just next door to the city of Auburn, although the operation was well known to many of the local Latinos who make up nearly 7 percent of the town’s population.

Woo said the home might have been used as a base for smuggled immigrants long before 2006, but so far that’s the earliest the government has been able to document its first arrivals.

The alleged crimes originated in central Mexico, and attorneys for the couple in court documents say they will need to travel there to investigate the claims being made by the immigrants as well as interview those who helped the family and others obtain services.

For its part, the U.S. attorney is encouraging anyone with information about the case — including other smuggled immigrants — to contact authorities.

Runners

The government believes the couple depended on runners, including a son, to recruit people in Aguascalientes and then used already-established smuggling operations to bring them across the border.

The operation came to the attention of authorities after the children began telling what happened to them. And from the children’s parents, officials learned about four other smuggled immigrants who also had lived at the Pacific address.

Federal documents allege the eight arrived at the home between October 2006 and August 2007. Most of them lived in the 20-by-25-foot, detached two-car garage with its sparse accommodations on the side of a 1950s rambler-style house.

The operation began to unravel when the girl’s mother told a church counselor that her daughter had been molested by the man they had been living with. That counselor reported it to a school counselor and the local police.

Santos-Gonzales has accused the family of making up the allegations.

Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf and photographer Greg Gilbert contributed to this report.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com