Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Life Sentences for 2 Sex Traffickers Who Preyed on Mexican Immigrants


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It was a sprawling family business, employing drivers, dispatchers and doormen. There were “steerers” who passed out “chica” cards on the street to solicit customers. There was even a mechanic who swept vehicles for tracking devices that might have been surreptitiously placed by federal agents, prosecutors said.
And, of course, there were the women — smuggled into the United States from Mexico and forced to work in a network of brothels in and around New York City, or shuttled to farms in New Jersey, where they had sex with up to 25 migrant workers a day in sheds in the fields, with men paying about $30 for 15 minutes of sex, the government said.
The ringleaders, Isaias Flores-Mendez, who is about 42, and his brother, Bonifacio, 35, both natives of Mexico, are among 16 people who have now pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the sex-trafficking ring, which was broken up in April 2013.
Most of the defendants will serve prison sentences of five years or less. But in separate hearings last month, a federal judge in Manhattan, Katherine B. Forrest, sentenced each brother to life in prison.
Prosecutors said women at the Elm Street apartment each saw eight to 10 customers a day.CreditUnited States attorney's office for the Southern District of New York
Life sentences are not unprecedented in federal sex-trafficking cases; there have been at least 11 imposed nationally in cases since 2009, according to research by Alexandra F. Levy, a lawyer with the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, a group that arranges free legal help for victims.
James T. Hayes Jr., the special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in New York, said the life terms imposed in the state and elsewhere were “a sign of how seriously” judges were taking such cases.
The New York case also highlights how structured such an operation can be; Judge Forrest, of Federal District Court, called it a “vertically integrated enterprise,” as she sentenced the younger brother on May 30.
“Your criminal enterprise,” the judge said, “was, for these women, not a chosen way of life but living in a daily hell.”
A prosecutor, Rebecca Mermelstein, told the judge that the “entire enterprise is only workable because it is staffed, so to speak, by women who do so under duress, because the conditions are so horrific that it’s not the kind of thing that anyone could really choose.”
The office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, has said in court papers that the Flores-Mendez ring was part of a larger network of sex traffickers operating between Tenancingo, Mexico, New York and elsewhere. Women were typically lured through the promise of romantic relationships and a better life, and were forced into prostitution after they arrived, the office said. The judge noted that women who refused to submit were beaten, isolated and starved.
“Because money drives these crimes — as it does so many others — we have pursued forfeiture of the traffickers’ illegal profits and restitution, seeking some recovery for the victims,” Mr. Bharara said in a statement. He added that the victims, mostly poor, without legal status and traumatized and terrorized by the traffickers, were “some of the most vulnerable and powerless in our society.”
Government filings show that brothels were operated at 350 First Street in Newburgh, N.Y.; in a second-floor apartment at 613 Seneca Avenue in Queens; on the second floor of a two-story yellow house at 20 Rose Street in Poughkeepsie; and in an apartment at 121 Elm Street in Yonkers — the busiest of the brothels, with two women working weeklong shifts and each seeing about eight to 10 customers a day.
Prosecutors have estimated that more than 400 women were victims of the trafficking conspiracy, including some who were minors. On one intercepted phone call, a defendant was heard discussing a “new girl who is only 17,” prosecutors said.
The government said it had been unable to locate or identify the vast majority of the victims, and that of the few who were interviewed by the authorities, most would not cooperate largely out of fear of retaliation. One woman who did cooperate, cited in court records as Victim 1, entered the United States at age 17 with her baby, after the brothers arranged to have her smuggled across the border, prosecutors said.
She was flown from California to New York in September 2006, where the younger Flores-Mendez brother took her to a house on 112th Street in Queens; there she was forced to sleep with her baby under a kitchen table and charged $200 in monthly rent and $50 weekly for food, prosecutors said.
Over much of the next year, the government said, the woman was forced to have sex against her will. In statements she submitted at the brothers’ sentencings, she said she had been forced to have sex with 15 to 35 men a day, in brothels and through delivery to “sex buyers.”
“I was forced to prostitute myself in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island City, Philadelphia and the Bronx,” she wrote.
Isaias Flores-Mendez’s “dehumanization of Victim 1 in the interest of profit was without bounds,” prosecutors wrote. He forced her to take birth control pills, and when he mistakenly believed that she was pregnant, “he grabbed me by the neck, slammed me against the wall, beat me repeatedly, and forced me to swallow more pills so that I would have an abortion,” the woman wrote.
She finally escaped, but was almost killed when the brothers saw her crossing the street one day in Queens and accelerated their car toward her, forcing her to jump out of the way, she added.
Such callousness toward the women seemed to be typical of the operation, court records suggest. Another defendant, Alejandro Degante-Galeno, who worked as a driver, was overheard on a court-ordered wiretap telling his son, Sergio, who was also charged in the case, that one woman “should be punished for wanting to rest and for not wanting to sexually service more customers.”
When the older brother, Isaias Flores-Mendez, was sentenced on May 14, Judge Forrest said he had run “a depraved and deplorable sex mill.” The judge noted that he had apologized briefly to his family in court. “But he owes an apology to so many more people,” she said. “He is, in my view, remorseless.”
When, two weeks later, the younger brother, Bonifacio, was sentenced, he apologized profusely to the victims, saying through an interpreter that he had acted out of greed, for money, and asked for their forgiveness. “I’ve realized that what I’ve done was the worst thing that you can do to a woman,” he said. “I feel like the worst man on earth.”
Judge Forrest showed no leniency. “We know there were mornings when you woke up in your bed surrounded by your family, and a woman who had been trafficked woke up in a locked, windowless room in a basement, unable to go out unless she was let out,” the judge said.
The brothers were each ordered to forfeit about $1.7 million and pay $84,000 in restitution to Victim 1.
Lori L. Cohen, a lawyer with Sanctuary for Families, an agency that worked with Victim 1 and several other trafficking victims in the case, said the woman was “extremely grateful” for the life sentences but she remained fearful that her family in Mexico “could be at risk” because she had reported the abuse.
At each sentencing, one of the prosecutors, Amanda Kramer and Ms. Mermelstein, read aloud a translation of Victim 1’s statement, in which the woman had explained why she was not appearing in person.
“I am scared for me, my family, and for my family in Mexico,” the woman wrote. “I want to forget all of this and just have peace in my life.”

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