by Lisa Chavarria and Brad Woodard / 11 News
Posted on February 17, 2011 at 8:41 AM
Updated Thursday, Feb 17 at 6:26 PM
HOUSTON – The owners of a local bar and restaurant are among 10 people accused of bringing young Mexican women and girls to Houston and forcing them into prostitution, U.S. Attorney Jose Angel Moreno said Thursday.
The 10 defendants were taken into custody during an overnight raid at the La Costenita night club and El Club Restaurante, located in the 8300 block of Clinton Drive.
“I applaud the bravery of the young lady who made the 911 call for help in this case, and commend the efforts of the agency members of the HTRA for the investigative efforts to rescue the victims in this case and apprehend their oppressors,” Moreno said.
The three-count indictment against the defendants was returned by a Houston grand jury on Tuesday and was unsealed Thursday.
“The crimes alleged in this indictment are unconscionable,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard C. Powers.
“While we can’t erase the harm done by these horrible acts, the FBI and other members of the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance will continue to ensure the victims of these crimes are protected and their traffickers are brought to justice.”
Maria Rojas, 46, one of the owners of the bar and restaurant, and her 38-year-old brother, Jose Luis Rojas, who operated La Costenita and adjacent properties, are accused of conspiring to hold persons in conditions of peonage and recruiting, holding, transporting and providing and obtaining persons for sexual services.
According to the indictment, Maria and Jose Rojas were involved in the recruitment of Mexican nationals, ages ranging from 14 to 30, to travel to the U.S. with the false expectation of legitimate jobs in bars and restaurants, beginning in 1999. Once the women arrived, the indictment alleges that the suspects used force, fraud and coercion to compel the women to work as prostitutes at their businesses.
“Their families back home are under threat,” said Deputy Adrian Garcia with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s put into the minds of these women if they don’t cooperate, if they do have family back home terrible and horrible things will happen to them.
The indictment also alleges that beginning in 2003, the conspirators changed their tactics and began relying on pimps to provide the girls and young women and to keep them from escaping.
Maria and Jose Rojas are accused of initially making their profits by doubling the amount of the smuggling fee charged by coyotes, which was then taken from the earnings of the women. When the operation changed to include pimps, the Rojas siblings allegedly collected $15 from each deal made by the prostitutes.
“They’ve found a way to keep them in perpetual debt,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruben Perez. That dress they bought them for $15 is suddenly a $100 dress. The food they provide, instead of $10, it’s $50.”
The conspiracy charge levied against Maria and Jose Rojas carries a statutory penalty of up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine upon conviction.
The remaining eight defendants are Javier Guevara Belmontes, 46; Maday Martinez Lindero, 34; Evelin Carloine Aguera, 37; Claudia Perez Ramirez, 27; Silvano Santos, 33; Francisco Midardi Maradiaga, 33; Olvan Renieri Ramirez Caceres, 25; and Aleyda Maria Juares, 27.
Investigators said Belmontes also owned, controlled and operated La Costenita and El Club Restaurante. Martinez and Aguera were allegedly managers at La Costenita and at the adjacent property where the prostitutes would take their dates. Ramirez, Santos, Jimenez and Caceres allegedly worked as lookouts to warn of police presence. Investigators said Juares charged the victims for condoms and the use of the rooms at the adjacent property.
Those eight defendants, along with the Rojas siblings, are charged with conspiring to harbor illegal aliens for commercial advantage and private financial gain. If convicted of that offense, the defendants could be sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Maria Rojas is also charged in the third and last count of the indictment with illegal re-entry into the United States after deportation, which carries a maximum statutory penalty of two years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine upon conviction.
“Human and sex trafficking is modern-day slavery and it’s happening right here in our own back yard,” said Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia. “These indictments prove that we will not tolerate it and that we will pursue the individuals involved in this kind of crime to the furthest extent of the law. These arrests, while they’re just the tip of the iceberg, are an example of the results that working together diligently with local and federal agencies can produce.”
Houston, because of its proximity to Mexico, has become a hub of sorts.
“We have an international airport, we’re an international city,” said Steven Goff with the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition. “It’s easy to blend in. Our proximity to Mexico, we also have a huge commercially-oriented sexual business industry here in Houston.”
Maria and Jose Luis Rojas, Maday Martinez Lindero, Silvano Santos and Claudia Perez Ramirez are Mexican nationals. Four others—Evelin Carolina Aguero, Olvan Renieri Ramirez Caceres, Aleyda Maria Juares and Francisco Maradiaga Jimenez—are Honduran nationals. Javier Guevara Belmontes is a legal permanent U.S. resident originally from Mexico.
The defendants all made initial court appearances Thursday and were scheduled to appear at a detention hearing Friday afternoon.
The case was investigated by the FBI, ICE, Harris Co. Sheriff’s Office, The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the Texas Attorney General’s Office; the Department of State – Diplomatic Security Service, Texas Department of Public Safety and the Houston Police Department.