120 women rescued from grim conditions
By Lise Olsen / June 29, 2008
The farewell party was in full swing at midnight when police came for Maximino "El Chimino" Mondragon, his accomplices and his victims — scantily dressed women and girls he forced to sell beers and sexual favors under the flashing lights of a revolving crystalline disco ball inside his strip mall bar off Hempstead Highway.
Mondragon was celebrating his retirement at El Potrero de Chimino bar, also known as the Wagon Wheel. He had a one-way ticket back to his native El Salvador and blueprints in the bar for a brand-new hotel back home.
Then uninvited guests arrived.
Pickups packed the parking lots at five related bars and restaurants in northwest Houston, as more than 100 officers from federal, state and local agencies rushed in the night of Nov. 13, 2005.
Interviews with the arresting agents and documents recently obtained by the Houston Chronicle provide the first detailed account on how one of the nation's largest sex trafficking rings was dismantled in Houston — considered both a center of operations and transit point for international sex and labor traffickers.
Task force members — including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, the Harris County Sheriff's Office and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission — had expected to find 50 or 60 women. Eventually, they rescued about 120 victims.
In interviews, victims told agents they had been forced to work six or seven nights a week and to allow men to buy them overpriced drinks in exchange for their company or for sexual favors.
The main targets were the lead cantina owner, Mondragon; head smuggler, Walter Corea; as well as their relatives and wives. Corea was sentenced in May to 15 years; Mondragon's sentencing, the last, is set for Sept. 22. Faced with reams of evidence, seven have pleaded guilty.
To the members of the then-nearly new Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance, the mass arrests and rescues represented a significant enforcement victory.
The size of the Mondragon ring, as well as others dismantled elsewhere, convinced law enforcement authorities that the problem of forced labor in the U.S. is likely much larger than anyone anticipated and continues to proliferate in Houston.
For years, 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 in cantinas to pay off smuggling fees from $8,000 to $15,000 — as well as all living expenses, according to court records and interviews with investigators.
The FBI named the case for them: "Bar Belles."
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.
In his bars, agents from the TABC found detailed ledgers and notebooks showing how victims had been billed for everything they ate and drank, for their rent, for their clothes, for their transport to the U.S. and for shipping money back home.
'Thought he was the devil'
To control them, 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.
In that strictly monitored world, male traffickers and their female "handlers" controlled victims' clothing, their bodies, their money and nearly their every move, according to interviews and court records.
"I had to do everything that they said — they had a camera outside my apartment that recorded everything," one victim told the Chronicle.
Another former bar belle, working when the raid began at Mondragon's party, fled through a back door, only to be illuminated by a helicopter spotlight and grabbed by a federal agent. She felt terrified yet relieved to have escaped.
"I said, 'Thank you God!' "
Over the years, Mondragon ran at least three seemingly normal looking bars and restaurants in northwest Houston. Mondragon and two of his brothers, both convicted as co-conspirators, lived legally in the U.S. Mondragon and his brother Oscar were both legal permanent residents. Their half brother, Victor Omar Lopez, was a naturalized U.S. citizen.
But Mondragon worked closely with lead smuggler Corea, a convicted felon and illegal immigrant who conspired to bring women to Houston from Central America and then used them as slaves.
Both Corea and Mondragon were self-made Salvadoran ricos, rich guys, who owned hotels and restaurants back home in San Miguel, the nation's third-largest city, federal investigators said.
Corea used his Salvadoran businesses as recruiting sites for victims, agents and victims said. He also oversaw an unusually large network of smugglers and safe houses in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, according to an interview with Tom Annello, an ICE unit chief and smuggling expert whose work was key to the case.
Patrons often saw Mondragon dance with the girls he kept as virtual prisoners in his clubs, according to Jose Benitez, a Houston labor organizer who tried to help the women after he met them and realized that they were being abused.
Beatings, forced abortions and prostitution took place behind closed doors or in adjacent buildings, houses and apartments, court records show. Aborted fetuses were buried or thrown down a drainage hole into the city sewer system, women told police.
Victims got little money
Several of the ring's cantinas had long been under suspicion by agents from the FBI and the TABC. TABC investigators repeatedly had investigated the businesses for allegations of prostitution, underage drinking and phony ownership, records show. TABC and other investigators believed the group used presta nombres — borrowed names from others — to run their places and to hide their assets or launder money.
In one undercover operation, agents used a snitch to buy two female victims that they wanted to rescue. They paid $11,000, according to a police report. Victor Omar Lopez, Mondragon's half-brother who is now in federal prison, even offered a guarantee: He promised that if the girls escaped, he would have one of his associates hunt them down — or give them new girls.
Unbeknownst to the other agencies, ICE had simultaneously been investigating the smuggling ring run by Corea.
"Once we determined we were investigating the same targets, we proceeded working a joint investigation," Annello said. After that, it took about a year to collect the evidence needed for mass arrests.
The operation was set for early 2006.
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. The raid had to happen within hours or the targets would be gone. She called Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruben Perez and other task force agents, most of whom were off duty or out of town.
That weekend, they got the necessary arrest and search warrants for the raids on three cantinas, two restaurants and two houses.
On Sunday near midnight, the traffickers were taken down. Corea, a convicted felon and illegal immigrant, was thrown down to the floor, handcuffed and taken away, a witness said. Watching was his 19-year-old son — a U.S. citizen — who was later convicted for his part in the smuggling operation.
A special ICE tactical team went in after Mondragon. His brothers, sister-in-law and girlfriend were arrested, too.
Inside their bars, agents found more than $29,000 in cash and 98 women, some as young as 16, who had been forced to repeatedly sell their time — and allow men to touch them inside the bar — for about $15 per drink, records show.
Some victims were forced to consume as many as 20 so-called "pony beers" a night to fulfill the traffickers' quotas, according to case documents and interviews. Traffickers also sold a few women for prostitution that took place at nearby houses and apartments, court documents said. The women got almost none of the money.
Later, agents found an additional 20 victims.
Rounded up with them was the ring's abortionist, Lorenza Nunez-Reyes, known as "La Comadre." One of her "patients" had dressed and taken photos of a nearly fully developed 5-month-old fetus apparently delivered dead during one of her illicit operations. Nunez-Reyes eventually pleaded to lesser charges and was deported to Honduras.
Corea's son has been released on probation.
The rest of the ring members, however, got jail time.
The night's results, as well as arrests of other exploitive employers and pimps before and since, catapulted members of the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance — formed in August 2004 — into minor celebrities.
In a few hours, competitive agents working together for the first time as an experimental anti-human trafficking task force took down a powerful multinational ring that labored to dominate its victims and leave a scant paper trail.
Propelled by federal grants and pushed by President Bush, other task forces have sprung up in 29 places nationwide.
Still trying to recover
Houston's task force is considered a national leader, in large part because of the partnerships forged between victim advocates and investigators.
"What's unique ... is the bridge we have built," said Edward F. Gallagher, the senior assistant U.S. attorney in Houston who serves as task force coordinator.
Today, 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 for this story said they feel safer but still struggle to recover. None remains eligible for federal assistance initially available to trafficking victims. Some depend on support from boyfriends or husbands; others eke out a living cleaning houses or doing other odd jobs.
"We don't know even where to go," one said.
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Source. / Houston Chronicle
The Rag Blog