When Sandra agreed to make the perilous trek from her native Guatemala to the United States in 2006, she said, she was lured by the prospect of a job as a housekeeper that would enable her to send money to her impoverished family back home.
Her father had a hernia that prevented him from working, and money was so tight that she and her 12 siblings sometimes didn’t have shoes or enough to eat, the young woman testified Thursday in federal court in Los Angeles.
But not long after Sandra was delivered to L.A. by human-smuggling “coyotes,” she learned that the job awaiting her had nothing to do with cleaning houses.
Instead, she said, she was told that she would have to “lay with men.”
“Did you understand you were going to be working as a prostitute?” asked Assistant U.S. Atty. Cheryl Murphy.
“I did not know what that word was,” Sandra responded through a Spanish-language translator. “Now I do.”
Sandra’s last name was not disclosed in court because she is the alleged victim of a sex crime and because prosecutors contend she is a minor.
She went on to testify how she was held captive, beaten, raped and forced to have sex with as many as 10 men a day by a group of fellow immigrants. She was the first in a string of young women to testify in what is expected to be a weeks-long trial before U.S. District Judge Margaret M. Morrow.
The defendants, most of them illegal immigrants from Guatemala, are accused of luring 10 unsuspecting young women -- in some cases, girls -- to the United States with the promise of legitimate jobs such as waitressing or working in jewelry or clothing stores.
Once here, prosecutors allege, the young women who knew nothing about the alleged prostitution ring were told they would have to sell themselves to cover the expense of having coyotes smuggle them into the country. The defendants gave the women skimpy clothing and taught them to apply heavy makeup before sending them out to prostitute themselves on street corners near MacArthur Park. The women typically charged $80 for 15 minutes of sex and some saw as many as 30 clients a day, prosecutors alleged in court papers. The women were forced to turn over all the proceeds to the defendants, they said.
Prosecutors said that the young women were held captive in nearby apartments and homes and that the defendants took several steps to discourage them from escaping, including beating them, threatening them with witchcraft and promising to harm their families in Guatemala.
During opening statements Wednesday, attorney Jeff Price, who is representing one of the five defendants, derided the government’s case as “a mirage.”
He said his client had merely offered shelter to some of the young women and that those same women were now “prostituting themselves to a false story.”
Added defense attorney Dana Cephas: “When these alleged victims came here they knew they were going to work as prostitutes, but they came anyway.”
Cephas added later that some of the women had their own cellphones, which they used to call family members and presumably could have alerted them to their alleged plights.
On the witness stand Thursday, Sandra insisted that she never intended to work as a prostitute and only did so because she was afraid that she or her family would be harmed if she refused. She said she didn’t know anyone in the United States, didn’t have any money, couldn’t read and had no way to return to Guatemala.
At one point, she said, the defendant she was living with, Mirna Valenzuela, threatened to sell her to a pimp if she caused any problems. She said Valenzuela told her the pimp would force her to have sex with men of different races and to submit to oral and anal sex.
“I kept telling her not to sell me,” the young woman said.
Among the defendants in the case are sisters Mirna and Gladys Valenzuela, both illegal immigrants from Guatemala who, according to prosecutors, hatched the plan to begin luring young women from their home country to the United States, where they would force them into prostitution. Also charged are two of the sisters’ nieces and Mirna’s live-in boyfriend, Gabriel Mendez.
“They were engaged in a family business,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Curtis Kin said, “the family prostitution business.”
Gladys Valenzuela, 38, was depicted by prosecutors as the ringleader. She was described as an ill-tempered woman who threatened to throw acid in the face of one young woman if she tried to escape and told another she would use witchcraft to cast a spell that would put a toad in her stomach.
Prosecutors maintain that the young women were particularly vulnerable to such intimidation.
“They were young, poor, uneducated and unable to assert themselves,” prosecutors wrote in a trial memo laying out their case.
Sandra seemed to embody that description. She stands barely 4 feet tall, and during questioning, it was revealed that she did not know her age and was unable to discern her left from her right.
Authorities became aware of the alleged ring in October 2006 when a man who worked as a driver transporting the young women to various locations to work as prostitutes began cooperating with the FBI. The man led agents to two young women who had managed to escape with the help of a customer who had “formed a relationship” with one of them.
Several weeks later the driver-turned-informant led agents to some of the sites where the women were allegedly kept.
The informant wore a hidden recording device that day while in the presence of Gladys Valenzuela, some of her co-defendants and some of the remaining victims.
According to prosecutors, Valenzuela made several incriminating statements, including a threat that anyone else who tried to escape “would be killed.”