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Documents Reveal Sex Trafficking Ring Bust

HOUSTON (AP) – A Houston bar owner controlled girls and women from Central America forced to take part in one of the nation’s largest sex trafficking rings by threatening to kill their families, according to a newspaper report.

Recently obtained documents and interviews by the Houston Chronicle offer the first detailed account of how authorities in 2005 brought down the Houston-based sex trafficking ring.

The ring preyed on women and girls from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, illegally bringing them to Houston with false promises of legitimate work and then forcing them to work as prostitutes in cantinas to pay off smuggling fees and living expenses, according to court records and interviews with investigators.

The ring, run by Maximino “El Chimino” Mondragon, an immigrant from El Salvador, was based in at least three seemingly normal looking bars and restaurants in northwest Houston.

He worked closely with lead smuggler Walter Corea, a convicted felon and illegal immigrant who conspired to bring women to Houston from Central America Mondragon had run businesses in Houston for at least a decade, according to records and interviews with police and a labor activist who helped rescue cantina workers.

To control the women, Mondragon kept “intelligence” on each one – the names of their mothers, brothers and children and locations of their homes and schools. Records show victims said he threatened to kill relatives or burn down family homes if they did not cooperate.

“They were scared to death of him. … They thought he was the devil,” said Sgt. Michael Barnett of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s enforcement division in Houston.

Beatings, forced abortions and prostitution took place behind closed doors or in adjacent buildings, houses and apartments around the bars, court records show. Aborted fetuses were buried or thrown down a drainage hole into the city sewer system, women told police.

Several of the ring’s cantinas had long been under suspicion by agents from the FBI and the TABC.

Separately, Immigration and Customs Enforcement was also investigating the smuggling ring run by Corea.

“Once we determined we were investigating the same targets, we proceeded working a joint investigation,” said Tom Annello, an ICE unit chief and smuggling expert whose work was key to the case.

It took about a year to collect the evidence needed for mass arrests. The operation was set for early 2006.

But then on Nov. 12, 2005, the lead ICE agent learned that Mondragon and his brother Oscar had obtained one-way tickets to San Salvador, a police report shows. Authorities quickly obtained arrest and search warrants and that weekend raided three cantinas, two restaurants and two homes.

Task force members – including ICE, TABC, the FBI and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office – had expected to find 50 or 60 women. Eventually, they rescued about 120 victims.

Corea was sentenced in May to 15 years. He pleaded guilty to two conspiracy counts: servitude/trafficking and alien smuggling.

Mondragon is set to be sentenced on Sept. 22. He has pleaded guilty to two conspiracy counts: servitude/trafficking and alien smuggling. Seven others have pleaded guilty in the case, including two of Mondragon’s brothers.

Most of the women rescued in the Mondragon case apparently still live in Houston, though only a few dozen appear to have obtained special visas that were created for victims under new federal anti-trafficking laws.

Three interviewed by the Chronicle said they feel safer butstill struggle to recover.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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