Arrests made in alleged human trafficking ring

FBI, ICE and SWAT officers were found both at La Cantina on Clinton Drive and at the El Club restaurant and Comedy at the corner of Clinton and McCarty.

February 17, 2011 4:04:36 PM PST
It came as no surprise to people who drive by one east Houston bar regularly. Federal agents say what was going on inside was a human trafficking operation where young women were forced into a life of prostitution.

On Thursday, federal and local authorities announced the indictments and arrests of 10 people accused of turning young women into sex slaves. The investigation centered around two businesses located on Clinton near McCarty.

Nine of the 10 suspects involved in this case are in this country illegally. They're a mix of Mexican and Honduran nationals. The indictments and arrests are the result of a three-year investigation.

La Constenita and El Club Restaurante and Comedy look like legitimate businesses, but on Wednesday night, federal authorities raided these two eastside establishments. The raid happened around 7:30pm and authorities spent more than five hours on the scene investigating.

FBI, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, Homeland Security and SWAT officers led people away in handcuffs to a shuttle bus filled with prisoners. They arrested 10 people including the owner and rescued nine women and girls -- the youngest just 14. They were all allegedly being held captive as sex slaves.

"Rather than getting wages, they were forced to sit with men, for example at the bar to drink beer with them and forced into prostituting themselves with them," said U.S. Attorney Jose Angel Moreno.

Authorities say 12 years ago, Maria Rojas, the bar's owner, began enticing young Mexican girls to come to the U.S. under false pretenses, promising them paying jobs as waitresses in bars and restaurants. They say in 2003, Rojas started hiring Mexican pimps, or padrotes, to supply the girls for her and to keep them from escaping. According to court documents, "if the smuggler charges $2,000 per girl, the conspirators would tell the girl she owed $4,000 for her trip."

"The traffickers have gotten smart. It used to be that the victims could pay off their debt. They don't do that anymore. They found a way to keep them in perpetual debt," said Ruben Perez, Assistant U.S. Attorney.

Authorities say the women and girls were taken to flea markets to get fake IDs and told to fix their hair a certain way to look older.

Jesus Cervantes has worked for years at a tire shop next door to the restaurant and says he's never noticed anything unusual.

"We're here all day and we see everything here from our backyard and there's nothing going wrong over there; not that I know of," said Cervantes.

The 10 suspects are due back in federal court Friday afternoon for a detention hearing.

According to the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force, over the past four years more than 550 human trafficking investigations have led to the arrest of 132 suspects. The biggest obstacle is finding the victims. The number of human trafficking victims identified reflects only four-tenths of a percent of trafficking victims whom are out there somewhere.

If you know anyone that needs help, you're asked to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.