ATLANTA - A federal jury found Amador Cortes-Meza, 36, of Tlaxcala, Mexico, guilty on Wednesday of multiple charges related to sex trafficking and human smuggling. The charges stem from an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Atlanta.
Cortes-Meza was found guilty on all 19 counts after a two-week trial. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
"We hope that the victims who suffered at the hands of this monster can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that justice has been served," said Brock Nicholson, acting special agent in charge of the ICE HSI office that oversees the Carolinas and Georgia. "We are committed to working with our local, state and federal partners to target human traffickers who think that their heinous crimes will go unchecked."
Cortes-Meza and others charged in the conspiracy were found to have recruited and enticed approximately ten victims to enter the United States illegally from Mexico from the spring of 2006 through June 2008 and come to the Atlanta area. Cortes-Meza then forced them into prostitution for the financial benefit of the members of the conspiracy. He lured the young women and girls to the United States by promising better lives, legitimate employment, or romantic relationships with him. Cortes-Meza's brother and two nephews were previously convicted after pleading guilty to sex trafficking charges related to this scheme.
"This defendant preyed on the most vulnerable of victims--girls and young women hoping for a better life-- through promises of jobs or marriage. He then physically abused them, enslaved them, and forced them into prostitution," said U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates. "This trial provided a glimpse into the monstrous world of human trafficking. We are committed to giving voice to the victims of these horrific crimes and holding the defendants accountable for their crimes."
Evidence at trial showed that after smuggling the victims into the United States, Cortes-Meza forced them to engage in prostitution by isolating them from their families, brutally beating them, and threatening to harm them and their loved ones. One victim testified that he told her that "he was going to hit her where it hurt the most" and she took that to mean he was going to go after her family. Another victim testified that the defendant told her he would kill her parents in Mexico if he was ever arrested.
On a nightly basis, Cortes-Meza provided the victims to drivers who drove them to apartments and homes in Duluth, Chamblee, Canton, Marietta, Forrest Park, Ga., and as far away as Alabama and North Carolina to provide commercial sex to as many as 40 customers a night. The victims testified that the clients were charged $25-30 for ten to fifteen minutes of time with them, from which the drivers were given $10.
"This jury has vindicated the rights of numerous young women and girls this defendant exploited, abused, and forced into prostitution," said Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division in Washington D.C. Thomas E. Perez. "The exploitation of these vulnerable individuals is a violation of the fundamental rights on which our country was founded, and is intolerable in a nation that prides itself on freedom. The defendants preyed on the hopes and dreams of these young victims and turned those dreams into a living nightmare. The Department of Justice will continue to prosecute vigorously the trafficking of human beings to uphold the rights of those held in modern-day slavery, whether for labor or for sexual exploitation."
Witnesses at trial testified about brutal physical attacks from Cortes-Meza including one incident in which he beat a young woman with a rod and electric cord before throwing an iron at her head, slicing open her scalp. This woman testified that the defendant took the money she made because, in her words, she "was his property." Another witness testified that Cortes-Meza beat her with a broomstick and a closet rod, ultimately breaking her finger. On the witness stand, she showed the jury her permanently disfigured finger. This same witness testified that after her first two days of forced prostitution she felt "destroyed." When she told the defendant she was in pain from the commercial sex acts he forced her to perform, Cortes-Meza replied that it "didn't mean a thing" to him and that she had to go to work the next day as well. Other victims recalled that on their first night of forced prostitution they had to perform sex acts with 20 to 27 total strangers.
Evidence at trial further showed that Cortes-Meza also prostituted girls he knew were under the age of 18. He smuggled two juveniles into the country, one of them when she was 14 years old. The defendant had been caught by authorities illegally crossing the border into Arizona with two of his victims, including one of the juveniles for whom he had obtained a fake birth certificate. After being deported, the defendant immediately re-entered the United States with both victims. Cortes-Meza told the 14-year-old girl that he loved her, would marry her, and asked her to work in prostitution to earn money for their life back in Mexico. In reality, Cortes-Meza already had a wife and children in Mexico, but he kept that victim in prostitution for approximately three years. She testified about one incident during which Cortes-Meza pulled a knife on her and she thought that he was going to kill her.
Witnesses also testified that the defendant and his co-defendants strictly monitored the victims, keeping them under close supervision and control. The victims testified that they were terrified of Cortes-Meza and his associates, who required them to perform up to 40 acts of prostitution a night.
The jury convicted Cortes-Meza on 19 counts, after one day of deliberation. Those counts included offenses of sex trafficking by force, fraud, and coercion, sex trafficking of minors, conspiracy, importation and harboring of aliens for the purposes of prostitution, and smuggling aliens into the United States.
No sentencing date has yet been set by the Court.
The Department of Justice has identified human trafficking prosecutions as a top priority. In order to aid the prosecution and bring defendants to justice, victims may be eligible for immigration status in the United States. In this particular case, nine victims addressed the court about what they suffered at the hands of this sex trafficking ring. The traffickers used physical threats, beatings and intimidation to force the victims to work as prostitutes.
The public can report trafficking crimes to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Tip Line at 1-866-347-2423.
Deputy Chief Karima Maloney of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Coppedge prosecuted the case.