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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

Houston man, woman pleaded guilty in sex trafficking and alien harboring case

HOUSTON — A Texas man and woman pleaded guilty on Monday for their roles in trafficking Mexican females for compelled service at local bars and restaurants through force, fraud and coercion.

The guilty pleas resulted from a three-year investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and other agency members of the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance (HTRA) in Houston.

Maria Rojas, aka "Nancy" and Jose Luis Rojas entered their pleas Nov. 28 to conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens as well as sex trafficking conspiracy before U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes.

The two were charged with recruiting Mexican women and girls to travel to the United States with the false expectation of legitimate jobs in bars and restaurants. The Feb. 15 indictment alleged that the conspirators further relied on the services of pimps to supply the women for use as prostitutes, and to maintain control of the women.

Maria Rojas, 46, was the owner of La Costenita, formerly Playa Sola, as well as El Club Restaurante, formerly La Cueva Restaurante Bar, both located on Clinton Drive in Houston. Jose Luis Rojas, 38, operated La Costenita.

Eight others were also charged in the indictment with conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens. Javier Guevara Belmontes, 46, also owned, controlled and operated La Costenita and El Club Restaurante. Maday Martinez, 34, and Evelin Carolina Aguera, 37, worked as managers. Claudia Perez Ramirez, Silvano Santos, aka "Chivas," Francisco Maradiaga Jimenez, aka "Pancho," and Olvan Ramirez Caceres worked at La Costenita as lookouts alerting police presence. The final defendant, Aleyda Juarez, passed out condoms. She charged the females $15 for the condoms and use of the rooms.

Aguera, Santos, Perez Ramirez, Maradiaga Jimenez, Ramirez Caceres and Juarez pleaded guilty and have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from eight to 11 months. All of them will be deported after they complete their sentences. Martinez has also pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

The remaining defendant, Belmontes, is scheduled for trial Feb. 27. He is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.

Maria and Jose Rojas are set for sentencing on Feb. 27, at which time they face a maximum term of life imprisonment and a $250,000 fine for the sex trafficking conspiracy conviction, and a maximum 10 years for conspiracy to harbor aliens. Maria Rojas, who also pleaded guilty to illegal re-entry after deportation, will also face an additional two-year prison term and a 250,000 fine.

The United States is also seeking the forfeiture of money, two bars, one restaurant and several properties, which the government alleges were the proceeds of ill-gotten gains and/or used to facilitate these crimes.

In addition to ICE HSI, the HTRA in Houston also includes the following agencies: the FBI, the Harris County Sheriff's Office, the Texas Alcoholic and Beverage Commission (TABC), the Texas Attorney General's Office, the Department of State, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Houston Police Department.

The Houston HTRA was one of the first of 42 such funded organizations and the first of its kind in Texas. The mission of the HTRA is to foster the collaboration of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies with area social service organizations to identify and assist the victims of human trafficking, and to effectively identify, apprehend and prosecute those engaged in trafficking offenses.