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Originally published Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 6:11 AM

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Life sentences underscore terrors of sex-trafficking ring

The Mexican ringleaders of a sprawling sex-trafficking ring have been sentenced to life by a federal judge in New York, and ordered to pay restitution, but most of the hundreds of women who were prostituted and dehumanized have not been found. Because of fear, they may never come forward.


The New York Times

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It was a sprawling family business, employing drivers, dispatchers and doormen.

There were “steerers” who passed out “chica” cards on the street to solicit customers.

There was even a mechanic who swept vehicles for tracking devices that might have been surreptitiously placed by federal agents, prosecutors said.

And, of course, there were the women — smuggled into the United States from Mexico and forced to work in a network of brothels in and around New York City, or shuttled to farms in New Jersey, where they had sex with up to 25 migrant workers a day in sheds in the fields, the government said.

The ringleaders, Isaias Flores-Mendez, who is about 42, and his brother, Bonifacio, 35, both natives of Mexico, are among 16 people who have now pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the sex-trafficking ring, which was broken up in April 2013.

Most of the defendants will serve prison sentences of five years or less. But in separate hearings last month, a federal judge in Manhattan, Katherine Forrest, sentenced each brother to life in prison.

Life sentences are not unprecedented in federal sex-trafficking cases; there have been at least 11 imposed nationally in cases indicted since 2009, according to research by Alexandra Levy, a lawyer with the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, which arranges free legal help for victims.

James Hayes Jr., the special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in New York, said the life terms imposed in New York and elsewhere were “a sign of how seriously” judges were taking such cases.

The New York case also highlights how structured such an operation can be; Forrest, of U.S. District Court, called it a “vertically integrated enterprise,” as she sentenced the younger brother May 30.

“Your criminal enterprise,” the judge said, “was, for these women, not a chosen way of life but living in a daily hell.”

The office of Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, has said in court papers that the ring was part of a larger network of sex traffickers operating between Tenancingo, Mexico, New York and elsewhere.

Women were typically lured through the promise of romantic relationships and a better life, and were forced into prostitution after they arrived, the office said.

The judge noted that women who refused to submit were beaten, isolated and starved.

“Because money drives these crimes — as it does so many others — we have pursued forfeiture of the traffickers’ illegal profits and restitution, seeking some recovery for the victims,” Bharara said in a statement.

He added that the victims, mostly poor, without legal status and terrorized by the traffickers, were “some of the most vulnerable and powerless in our society.”

Prosecutors have estimated that more than 400 women were victims of the trafficking conspiracy, including some who were minors.

The government said it had been unable to locate or identify the vast majority of the victims, and that of the few who were interviewed by the authorities, most would not cooperate — largely out of fear of retaliation.

One woman who did cooperate, cited in court records as Victim 1, entered the United States at the age of 17 with her baby, after the brothers arranged to have her smuggled across the border, prosecutors said.

She was flown from California to New York in September 2006, where the younger Flores-Mendez brother took her to a house in Queens; there she was forced to sleep with her baby under a kitchen table and charged $200 in monthly rent and $50 weekly for food, prosecutors said.

Over much of the next year, the government said, the woman was forced to have sex against her will.

“I was forced to prostitute myself in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island City, Philadelphia and the Bronx,” she wrote.

Isaias Flores-Mendez’s “dehumanization of Victim 1 in the interest of profit was without bounds,” prosecutors wrote.

He forced her to take birth-control pills, and when he mistakenly believed that she was pregnant, “he grabbed me by the neck, slammed me against the wall, beat me repeatedly, and forced me to swallow more pills so that I would have an abortion,” the woman wrote.

She finally escaped, but was almost killed when the brothers saw her crossing the street one day in Queens and accelerated their car toward her, forcing her to jump out of the way, she added.

The brothers were each ordered to forfeit about $1.7 million and pay $84,000 in restitution to Victim 1.

Lori Cohen, a lawyer with Sanctuary for Families, an agency that worked with Victim 1 and several other trafficking victims in the case, said the woman was “extremely grateful” at the life sentences, but she remained fearful that her family in Mexico “could be at risk” because she had reported the abuse.

At each sentencing, one of the prosecutors read aloud a translation of Victim 1’s statement, in which the woman had explained why she was not appearing in person.

“I am scared for me, my family, and for my family in Mexico,” the woman wrote. “I want to forget all of this and just have peace in my life.”



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