WASHINGTON – Five defendants, all members or associates of an extended family, face potential life sentences after being found guilty of sex trafficking for participating in a scheme that lured young Central American women and girls into the Los Angeles area and forced them into prostitution, announced Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King for Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Thomas O’Brien for the Central District of California.
The defendants, four Guatemalan nationals and one Mexican citizen, were convicted on Feb. 11, 2009, of conspiracy; sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion; and importation of aliens for purposes of prostitution. The jury in the case was unable to reach unanimous verdicts on additional charges.
During a six-week trial, the government presented evidence that the defendants targeted young, uneducated, impoverished and undocumented women and girls from Central America. The defendants conspired to lure and smuggle their victims into the United States for prostitution by enticing them with false promises of legitimate jobs. But after arranging for the victims to be smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border, the defendants used a combination of threats, including deception, rape, physical violence and witchcraft, to compel the victims to perform acts of prostitution.
The defendants intimidated and controlled their victims, the evidence showed, by threatening that if the victims tried to escape, the defendants or their associates would find them, beat them and kill their loved ones in Guatemala. Some defendants also used witch doctors to threaten the girls that a curse would be placed on them and their families if they tried to escape. Two defendants further restrained the victims by locking them in at night and blockading windows and doors to prevent their escape. The defendants’ scheme of coercion and control also included, according to the evidence presented at trial, beatings and threats; manipulation of debts; verbal abuse; psychological manipulation; strict controls over the victims’ work schedules; and ominous comments about consequences that befell the families of other victims who attempted to escape.
Defendants collected the profits generated by the compelled prostitution, and maintained control of the prostitution proceeds, earning tens of thousands of dollars for their profit while the victims received almost nothing.
The defendants found guilty are Gladys Vasquez Valenzuela, aka Gladys, 38; Mirna Jeanneth Vasquez Valenzuela, aka Miriam, 27; Gabriel Mendez, 34; Maria de los Angeles Vicente aka Angela, 29; and Maribel Rodriguez Vasquez, 29. All of the defendants face statutory maximum penalties of life in prison. All of the defendants except Rodriguez Vasquez face a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Margaret M. Morrow, who presided over the trial, will sentence the defendants later this year.
Additional defendants Flor Morales Sanchez, Pablo Bonifacio, Luis Vicente Vasquez and Albertina Vasquez Valenzeula previously pleaded guilty to various offenses in connection with the defendants’ scheme.
"It is heart-wrenching to see young girls and women being victimized and exploited in this horrific way. The Civil Rights Division will work in conjunction with U.S. Attorneys Offices nationwide to stamp out this vicious and intolerable crime and seek significant prison sentences for anyone engaging in these despicable acts," said Loretta King, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. "This verdict is a message to all international and domestic sex traffickers that they cannot escape justice for committing egregious human rights violations."
"The defendants in this case trafficked in human beings, using these victims’ desire for a better life to lure them into a situation where they were deprived of their basic human rights," said U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien. "No one should be victimized in this way."
Human trafficking prosecutions are a top priority of the Justice Department. In Fiscal Year 2008, the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices filed a record number of criminal civil rights cases, including record numbers of both sex trafficking and labor trafficking cases.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Cheryl O’Connor Murphy, Curtis A. Kin, Anthony J. Lewis, Sara J. Heidel and Special Litigation Counsel Andrew J. Kline from the Civil Rights Division. The case was investigated by Special Agents Tricia Whitehill and Valerie Venegas of the FBI, Miguel Palomino of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Jesus Quezada from the U.S. Department of Labor.