The Houston Chronicle ~~ Sunday October 28 2007
Houston major hub for human trafficking
Large ring kept up to 120 women in virtual slavery
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.

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

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.”
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

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

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