Friday, February 18, 2011

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State, County and Federal Officials Make Human Trafficking Arrests

The following news release was issued by the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Texas on Feb. 17, 2011:

HUMAN TRAFFICKING INVESTIGATION LEADS TO INDICTMENT AND ARREST OF 10

(HOUSTON) - A three-year investigation into the trafficking of young and minor female Mexican nationals for the purpose of compelling their service as prostitutes at Houston area bars and restaurants through force, fraud and coercion has lead to the indictment of 10 including the owner/operators of the La Costeñita Bar and El Club Restaurante, United States Attorney José Angel Moreno announced today.

U.S. Attorney Moreno was joined in making this announcement at a press conference today by FBI-Houston Assistant Special Agent in Charge Michael H. Bonner; Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI) Assistant Special Agent in Charge Sean McElroy; Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia; Major George Rhyne, Texas Department of Public Safety; and Lt. C.A. Vazquez of the Houston Police Department; whose agencies worked together as part of the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance (HTRA) to conduct the investigation leading to the charges.

The three-count indictment returned by a Houston grand jury under seal on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011, was unsealed today. All 10 defendants charged were taken into custody as a result of coordinated enforcement actions undertaken by teams of investigating agents last evening. All those in custody made initial appearances before a United States Magistrate Judge earlier this morning. All will appear for a detention hearing tomorrow, Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, before United States Frances H. Stacy at 1:00 p.m.

“I applaud the bravery of the young lady who made the 911 call for help in this case,” said Moreno, “and commend the efforts of the agency members of the HTRA for the investigative efforts to rescue the victims in this case and apprehend their oppressors.”

Maria Rojas, aka “Nancy,” 46, a co-owner of the La Costeñita Bar and El Club Restaurante, located at 8403 and 8037 Clinton Drive, respectively, in Houston and her brother, Jose Luis Rojas, 38, who operated the La Costeñita as well as the locations adjacent to the bar located at 8303 Clinton Drive where the prostitution allegedly took place, are charged with conspiring to hold persons in conditions of peonage and recruiting, holding, transporting and providing and obtaining persons for sexual services.

“The crimes alleged in this indictment are unconscionable,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard C. Powers. “While we can't erase the harm done by these horrible acts, the FBI and other members of the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance will continue to ensure the victims of these crimes are protected and their traffickers are brought to justice.”

Specifically, the indictment alleges these defendants were involved in the recruitment of Mexican women and girls to travel to the United States with the false expectation of legitimate jobs in bars and restaurants beginning in 1999 and using force, fraud and coercion to compel their service as prostitutes in their bar and restaurant. It is further alleged that in 2003 through 2011, the conspirators changed their tactics and relied upon on the services of pimps to supply minor females and young women for use as prostitutes and to maintain control and prevent escape of the minor females and young women. The Rojas’ allegedly derived their substantial profits initially by doubling the amount of the smuggling fee charged by smugglers ($2,000 fee became $4,000) which was taken from the earnings of the women. Later when the operation changed to use pimps, profits were derived through the collection of $15 going to La Costeñita and $50 to the young women and minors which ultimately went to the pimp. This conspiracy charge carries a statutory penalty of a minimum of no less than 10 years imprisonment and maximum term of up to life imprisonment and a $250,000 fine upon conviction.

“Human and sex trafficking is modern-day slavery and it’s happening right here in our own back yard,” said Sheriff Garcia. “These indictments prove that we will not tolerate it and that we will pursue the individuals involved in this kind of crime to the furthest extent of the law. These arrests, while they’re just the tip of the iceberg, are an example of the results that working together diligently with local and federal agencies can produce.”

The remaining eight defendants, Javier Guevara Belmontes, 46, who also owned, controlled and operated La Costeñita Bar and El Club Restaurante; Maday Martinez, 34, aka “Yvonne” (full name Maday Martinez Lindero), and Evelin Carloine Aguera, 37, alleged managers at La Costeñita Bar and the adjacent property; Claudia LNU (real name: Claudia Perez Ramirez), 27, Silvano Santos, aka “Chivas,” 33, Francisco LNU, aka “Pancho” (real name: Francisco Midardi Maradiaga Jimenez), 33, and Olvan LNU (real name: Olvan Renieri Ramirez Caceres), 25, all of whom allegedly worked at La Costeñita Bar and at the adjacent property as “lookouts” alerting of police presence; and Aleyda LNU (real name: Aleyda Maria Juares), 27, who allegedly charged the young women and minors for condom and use of the rooms at a residence adjacent to the bar are charged along with Maria and Jose Luis Rojas conspiring to harbor illegal aliens for commercial advantage and private financial gain. A conviction for this felony offense carries a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Maria Rojas is also charged in the third and last count of the indictment with illegal re-entry into the United States after deportation which carries a maximum statutory penalty of two years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine upon conviction.

Maria and Jose Luis Rojas, Maday Martinez Lindero, Silvano Santos and Claudia Perez Ramirez are Mexican nationals. Four others, Evelin Carolina Aguero, Olvan Renieri Ramirez Caceres, Aleyda Maria Juares and Francisco Maradiaga Jimenez, are Honduran nationals. The l0th defendant, Javier Guevara Belmontes is a legal permanent resident originally from Mexico.

“Today's arrests reflect a coordinated state and federal law enforcement effort to crack down on human trafficking,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. “The defendants are charged with illegally trafficking their victims into this country and coercing them into forced prostitution. The Texas Attorney General's Office will continue working with state and local authorities to prevent this horrific crime.”

Also included in the indictment is notice of intent to forfeit money constituting the proceeds of the illegal activity, the businesses (bar and restaurant) and several residential properties - including the bar and restaurant and adjacent property and Maria Rojas’ home - which the United States alleges were used to facilitate or were obtained with ill-gotten gains from the alleged crimes

The case was investigated by the FBI, ICE, Harris Co. Sheriff’s Office, The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the Texas Attorney General’s Office; the Department of State - Diplomatic Security Service, Texas Department of Public Safety and the Houston Police Department.

The HTRA formed in August 2004 in the SDTX is one of the original 32 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance grantees. It is a collaboration of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies working together with area social service organizations to identify and assist the victims of human trafficking and to effectively identify, apprehend and prosecute those engaged in both domestic and international human trafficking offenses. The United States Attorney’s Office for the SDTX coordinates all trafficking investigations. Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Gallagher, Deputy Chief of the Criminal Division’s Major Crimes Section serves as coordinator of the HTRA, Assistant United States Attorneys Ruben R. Perez, Chief of the Civil Rights/Trafficking Unit (CRTU), who is prosecuting this case with the assistance of Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Magliolo and Special Assistant United States Attorney Kimani Eason, members of the CRTU, serves as deputy coordinator of the HTRA.

The public is reminded that an indictment is formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence.
The defendant(s) are presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.