Large ring kept up to 120 women in virtual slavery.
If you think you've identified a victim of human trafficking, call 911 or the national Trafficking Information and Referral Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. For information locally, contact the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition at 713-306-0583. Here are some questions to ask a suspected trafficking victim:
• What type of work do you do?
• Are you being paid?
• Can you leave your job if you want to?
• Can you come and go as you please?
• Have you or has your family been threatened?
• What are your working conditions like?
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
The picture, with its implicit threat, was all it took.
It was taken just before Christmas 2004. She had been thinking about running away from the windowless bar on Houston's northwest side, where he kept her and other women, forcing some of them into prostitution while they paid off their "debts."
But Maximino "Chimino" Mondragon knew of her plans.
Carrying a camera and Christmas presents for the woman's daughter, he had appeared unannounced at her family's home in El Salvador. The woman, who was not identified by authorities, told investigators that Mondragon had talked his way into the home by saying the gifts were from her.
"By the way," Mondragon reportedly asked her parents, "would you mind taking a photo of me with the little girl?"
There were no more plans of escaping.
With similar threats, Mondragon and a network of family members and associates operated one of the largest human trafficking rings in U.S. history in which as many as 120 women were held captive and coerced to work off their smuggling debts. Some of the women were raped and forced to have abortions.
Mondragon's operation collapsed in November 2005 when the women were freed and he and seven other defendants from El Salvador and Honduras were arrested on federal human trafficking charges.
All eight defendants in the case have pleaded guilty in Houston courtrooms, but only one woman — a Honduran accused of providing the abortions — has been sentenced. The remaining sentencings are scheduled for this winter.
Houston a trafficking hub
The Mondragon case underscores the need to raise awareness about human trafficking, which still largely operates "under the radar" despite major efforts to combat the crime in recent years, said Ed Gallagher, the deputy chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston. The U.S. State Department estimates that 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year, but the vast majority are never identified as victims.
Gallagher said the Mondragon case was remarkable because of the large number of victims. The only U.S. case with more certified human trafficking victims was based in American Samoa, and involved a ring that forced hundreds of Vietnamese and Chinese to work in a factory, officials said.
Maritza Conde-Vazquez, a special agent with the FBI, said Houston is a popular trafficking hub in part because the city is so diverse, with large Hispanic, Asian and Middle Eastern populations, which allows traffickers and their victims to blend into local communities. The city's major port and proximity to the border also influence its position as a major distribution point for traffickers.
Recognition of the growing problem in Houston has spawned coalitions and task forces that include law enforcement agencies and nongovernmental organizations, Gallagher said. The joint efforts have led to major cases, and helped put Texas behind only California in the number of registered human trafficking victims, with 252 reported since 2001, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"It's everywhere. It's in restaurants and so-called spas. A lot of them are fronts for cantinas and brothels," said Deputy Edwin Chapuseaux of the Harris County Sheriff's Department. "Wherever there is some kind of labor, there's a possibility human trafficking could be happening."
The Department of Justice estimates that human trafficking is the third-most-profitable criminal activity in the world, after drug and arms trafficking, with an estimated $9.5 billion generated annually worldwide.
Nationally, prosecutions of human traffickers are increasing, according to Department of Justice statistics. The DOJ reported a record number of defendants charged and convicted in connection with human trafficking in fiscal year 2006, while the number of investigations that year increased more than 20 percent from the previous year, to 167 from 138.
Gallagher said human trafficking is often confused with smuggling, but differs substantially. To fit the legal definition of human trafficking, a crime must involve using force, fraud or coercion. Recent cases in Houston have ranged from domestic servitude to forced prostitution rings.
"In many cases, they are brought into modern-day slavery," Gallagher said. "They are exploited repeatedly, and they are treated as a commodity rather than a human being."
Under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, victims who cooperate with authorities on trafficking cases are permitted to stay in the U.S. legally, at least temporarily while the case moves through the court system. Some victims meet the qualifications for a "T-visa," a trafficking visa, which also offers a path toward legal residency. The rules are slightly different for children and teens, who are sometimes too vulnerable to be compelled to testify.
Chapuseaux, an investigator on the local human trafficking task force, lives with the images from the Mondragon case. He has a picture of a stillborn baby born at a Houston hospital, perfectly formed at five or six months, the result of the abortion-inducing drugs. He said he struggles with the memory of a 17-year-old Salvadoran girl who was purchased from the Mondragon ring by a source working for investigators. She was raped on a mattress in a room behind the bar before the source could pick her up, Chapuseaux said.
Mondragon and his co-defendants worked with Walter Alexander Corea, an admitted smuggler, to bring the women to Houston and force them to work in cantinas on the northwest side, including Mi Cabana Sports Bar, El Portero de Chimino Bar and Huetamo Night Club, prosecutors said. If a customer just wanted a beer, it would cost $2 or $3, depending on the brand. But if the customer wanted the company of a girl, a Corona would cost $13, investigators said. Of that, $9 went to pay down the debt from the smuggling.
When authorities raided the apartments where the women lived on Houston's northwest side, they found 98 possible victims, witnesses and suspects, officials said. Eventually, the number of victims in the Mondragon case grew to about 120.
Lorenza Reyes-Nunez, aka "La Comadre," who was accused of performing abortions, took a deal with the government. The Honduran woman was accused of giving pregnant women an herbal supplement that induced abortions, often late in the pregnancies.
One woman who took the drugs in a failed abortion attempt weeks later had a baby born with a hole in his heart and vision problems, investigators said. Reyes-Nunez pleaded guilty in August 2006 to obstruction of justice for encouraging women to destroy evidence. She was sentenced to time served in prison while the case waited for trial and marked for deportation to Honduras.
In January and February, sentencings are scheduled for Maximino Mondragon; his brother Oscar Mondragon; half brother Victor Omar Lopez; and the wives or ex-wives of the Mondragon brothers, Olga Mondragon and Maria Fuentes. Corea and his son, Kerin Silva, also are scheduled for sentencing this winter.
Prosecutors and investigators said it's unclear whether the victims will testify at the sentencings. The lore of the trafficking ring is still powerful, investigators said, especially since the network operated in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Officials declined to allow a reporter to speak with the victims because the case is still pending. Some of the women have returned home, while others have settled in Houston or Dallas with visas that allow them to work legally in the U.S., their attorneys said.
Some have suffered long-term psychological damage, while others have health problems, such as sexually transmitted diseases from their time as prostitutes, advocates said. One woman who drank heavily while working in the Mondragon ring's cantinas suffered serious kidney damage and is on dialysis two to three times a week, Chapuseaux said.
"She has one foot in the grave," he said. "It's just a matter of time."
Adapted from: SUSAN CARROLL, "Houston major hub for human trafficking
Large ring kept up to 120 women in virtual slavery." Houston Chronicle. 28 October 2007.
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