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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

Federal jury convicts Texas bar owner for sex trafficking and harboring aliens

McALLEN, Texas - A local woman was found guilty on Thursday on three counts of sex trafficking, conspiracy to harbor aliens, and six counts of harboring aliens. The charges stem from an investigation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Office of Homeland Security Investigation (HSI).

Beleal Garcia-Gonzalez, 34, of Mission, Tex., was convicted Sept. 23 after a 3-day jury trial. During the trial, ICE HSI agents testified they learned in January 2010 that underage undocumented aliens were being forced to work at a bar and were being prostituted by the bar's owner, Garcia-Gonzalez. Subsequent investigation revealed that three minors, ages 17, 15, and 14, were working at the bar and being prostituted by Garcia-Gonzalez.

Each of the minors testified during trial that while in Honduras they were promised jobs in the United States working at a restaurant making $700 a week. However, once they arrived in the United States, they learned they would be working at the bar that Garcia-Gonzalez owned, earning $120 a week, much of which was taken to pay the smuggling fees of $4,500 each owed to Garcia-Gonzalez. The minor victims testified that Garcia-Gonzalez told them they could make $3.00 for every beer that a customer bought them. She also told them they would make even more money if they had sex with customers because they would be able to keep whatever money they decided to charge the customer for sex, minus a $50 fee.

After the minors began working at the bar, they realized they were not making any money because Garcia-Gonzalez never paid them. Needing money, they turned to the other option that Garcia-Gonzalez had offered - prostitution. One minor testified she had been with men on six different occasions for which she was paid for having sex.

A co-defendant, Cesar Enrique Sarmiento-Mendoza, who pleaded guilty prior to trial to sex trafficking, testified that on one occasion, while Garcia-Gonzalez was in Mexico, Garcia-Gonzalez called him to tell him to pick up and transport two of the girls to his house so that two customers could take the girls out. Sarmiento-Mendoza testified he picked up the minors and received the money from the customers for these girls to engage in sex. Another minor testified that on one occasion a customer paid $300 to have sex with her, however, she did not leave with him. Garcia-Gonzalez was upset by her refusal. The minor further testified that although she never left with customers, customers would grope her while she drank beer with them at the bar.

The jury deliberated only briefly before returning the guilty verdicts. Sentencing has been set for Dec. 9, 2010. Garcia-Gonzalez faces a mandatory minimum of 15 years imprisonment on each of the sex trafficking counts, and up to 10 years imprisonment on the other counts, as well as substantial fines.