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January 31, 2023Houston, TX, United StatesHuman Smuggling/Trafficking

Unlawfully present Mexican national convicted for role in operating sex trafficking ring out of Houston-area cantina

HOUSTON — An unlawfully present Mexican national pleaded guilty Jan. 30 to multiple crimes related to her role in operating a sex trafficking ring out of a Houston-area cantina.

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Houston, the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission and the Houston Police Department conducted the investigation into the sex trafficking organization through its partnership with the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance.

Maria Botello-Morales, a 56-year-old Mexican national illegally residing in Houston, pleaded guilty Jan. 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; sex trafficking with force, fraud or coercion; and sex trafficking of a minor.

From 2015 to 2020, Botello-Morales ran Puerto Algre, a Houston-area cantina where several women were forced to engage in commercial sex in back rooms built specifically for that purpose. Botello-Morales and others threatened and intimidated victims to coerce them to engage in commercial sex. Each victim reported that they began working at the cantina as a server at the bar. However, Botello-Morales soon told them they had to engage in commercial sex. If they refused, she threatened them with violence.

The victims described how they were required to take customers to the back rooms. They were given condoms wrapped in paper towel and were instructed to charge approximately $70 and spend no more than 15 minutes in the room. On the way out, they had to turn the money over to the person guarding the room. Some of the victims witnessed violence and weapons at the bar and in the areas where the sex acts occurred. One victim also explained that when she refused to come to work, Botello-Morales sent someone to physically assault her.

In addition to sex trafficking, Botello-Morales recruited a minor female from Mexico in 2017. Once the minor was in the United States, Botello-Morales caused her to engage in commercial sex and took payment directly from the commercial sex buyers.

Botello-Morales is scheduled to be sentenced in June 2023. At that time, she faces up to life in prison. She will remain in custody pending that hearing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherri L. Zack prosecuted the case.

For more news and information on HSI Houston’s efforts to aggressively combat human trafficking in Southeast Texas follow us on Twitter @HSIHouston.

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.