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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

5 defendants convicted of sex trafficking for forcing Guatemalan girls and women into prostitution

LOS ANGELES - Five defendants, all members or associates of an extended family, face potential life prison sentences after being found guilty this afternoon of international sex trafficking for participating in a scheme that lured young Central American women and girls into the Los Angeles area and forced them into prostitution.

The case, which was prosecuted by the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California, resulted from a joint investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Inspector General.

The defendants, four Guatemalan nationals and one Mexican national, were convicted of conspiracy; sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion; and importation of aliens for purposes of prostitution. The jury in the case was unable to reach unanimous verdicts on additional charges.

During a six-week trial, the government presented evidence that the defendants targeted young, uneducated, impoverished, undocumented women and girls from Guatemala, and conspired to lure and smuggle them into the United States, where they were put to work as prostitutes. All but one of the victims were enticed with bogus promises of legitimate jobs. But after arranging for the victims to be smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border, the defendants used a combination of threats - deception, rape, physical violence and witchcraft - to compel the victims to perform acts of prostitution.

"The defendants in this case trafficked in human beings, using these victims' desire for a better life to lure them into a situation where they were deprived of their basic human rights," said United States Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien. "No one should be victimized in this way."

Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King stated: "Human traffickers like these defendants target vulnerable victims, including minors, and subject them to vicious conditions that will not be tolerated in this country. Today's convictions demonstrate the Department's commitment to exposing and vigorously prosecuting those who engage in such depraved exploitation of their fellow human beings."

The defendants intimidated and controlled their victims by threatening to beat them and kill their loved ones in Guatemala if they tried to escape. Some defendants also used witch doctors to threaten the girls that a curse would be placed on them and their families. At least two of the defendants further restrained the victims by locking them in at night and blocking windows and doors. The defendants also used verbal abuse and psychological manipulation and control to reinforce their control over the victims. The defendants imposed strict controls over the victims' work schedules and made ominous comments about consequences that befell the families of other victims who attempted to escape.

The defendants collected the profits generated by the acts of prostitution the victims were compelled to perform, and maintained control over the prostitution proceeds, earning tens of thousands of dollars while the victims received next to nothing.

The defendants found guilty today are Gladys Vasquez Valenzuela; Mirna Jeanneth Vasquez Valenzuela, aka Miriam, 27; Gabriel Mendez, 34; Maria de los Angeles Vicente, aka Angela, 29; and Maribel Rodriquez Vasquez, 29. All of the defendants face statutory maximum penalties of life in federal prison. Everyone with the exception of Maribel Rodriguez Vasquez faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in federal prison.

United States District Judge Margaret M. Morrow, who presided over the trial, will sentence the defendants later this year.

Four additional defendants - Flor Morales Sanchez, Pablo Bonifacio, Luis Vicente Vasquez and Albertina Vasquez Valenzeula - previously pleaded guilty to various offenses in connection with the scheme.

"This verdict is particularly gratifying given the appalling abuse and fear the unwitting victims in this case were forced to endure," said Robert Schoch, special agent in charge for the ICE Office of Investigations in Los Angeles. "While we can't erase the pain and suffering these young women experienced, by aggressively investigating and prosecuting these cases, ICE and the other members of the Los Angeles Human Trafficking Task Force are sending a powerful warning about the consequences facing those responsible for such schemes."

 "The investigation of this sex trafficking ring, the largest of its kind in Los Angeles to date, was initiated thanks to the courage of a witness who reported the abuse, which included the prostitution of women and children against their will," said Salvador Hernandez, assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles. "The FBI and our partners on the Los Angeles Metropolitan Task Force on Human Trafficking are hopeful that this case will bring awareness to the growing crisis involving the trafficking of people, so that more citizens provide information that leads to the rescue of victims and the prosecution of traffickers."

Human trafficking prosecutions are a top priority of the Justice Department. In Fiscal Year 2008, the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorneys' Offices filed a record number of criminal civil rights cases, including record numbers of both sex trafficking and labor trafficking cases.

In Los Angeles, the FBI, ICE, the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of the Inspector General, the United States Attorney's Office and the Los Angeles Police Department, along with several community groups, comprise the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area Task Force on Human Trafficking. Its mission is to improve tactics for identifying and rescuing trafficking victims, provide assistance to victims and prosecute those responsible for human trafficking.

The Human Trafficking Task Force in Los Angeles has established a toll-free hotline - (800) 655-4095 - which victims and individuals with information about victims are encouraged to call. Information may be provided anonymously and will be kept confidential.