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4 accused of smuggling women for prostitution

December 22, 2006|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Four women from Guatemala have been arrested as part of a scheme in which young women were lured into the U.S. with promises of good jobs and forced to become prostitutes in Los Angeles.

The women were arrested Wednesday when investigators from the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Labor and the LAPD served search warrants at six Los Angeles homes and apartments linked to the alleged prostitution ring.

Charged with importing and harboring undocumented immigrants as well as harboring them for prostitution were Gladys Vasquez Valenzuela, 36; her sisters, Jeanette, 25, and Albertina, 48; and Albertina's daughter, Maria Vicente de los Angeles, 27.

Another relative, Maribel Vasquez Valenzuela, is being sought by authorities.

The investigation began three months ago when two alleged victims of the ring escaped with the help of a male customer and contacted authorities, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

Two other victims were rescued by investigators last month. Ten women at the locations raided Wednesday were also believed to have been working as prostitutes and were being interviewed by authorities to determine if they also were victims.

In a sworn affidavit used for the arrests and searches, FBI Agent Tricia Whitehill provided a harrowing account of how the young women were duped into coming to the U.S., forced into prostitution and held against their will, often beaten when they complained.

One victim, identified only by the initials I.C., told the agent she was first approached in Guatemala about coming to the U.S. by a man named "Chepe." According to the affidavit, he told the woman he had children in the U.S. who needed help with their restaurant business and that she could make plenty of money that she could send back to her daughter in Guatemala.

Agreeing to the offer, I.C. traveled for 20 days by foot and bus, crossing the Mexican border into Texas in February. There, she met a man and woman who drove her from Houston to Los Angeles.

Gladys Vasquez Valenzuela and her niece, Maribel, met the van and paid the smugglers $1,600 for I.C. and another woman, according to the affidavit.

Returning to Vasquez Valenzuela's apartment, I.C. said, she was told by the woman that she owed $10,000 for the trip and would have to work as a prostitute if she did not have the money.

Never left alone long enough to escape, I.C. told the FBI, she was soon forced into prostitution at Vasquez Valenzuela's apartment. On occasion, she said, a van would take her and other victims to Alvarado Street, where they would pick up male customers and go to one of the many apartments used by the suspects for prostitution.

For months, I.C. said, she witnessed other women being beaten if they talked back to their captors or tried to escape. I.C. alleged that she was once beaten by Vasquez Valenzuela.

Then, on April 30, I.C. said, she and another woman, identified in the affidavit only as L.B., managed to escape with the help of a male customer who gave them money, bought them clothes and let them live with him.

Furious about the escape, Vasquez Valenzuela repeatedly called I.C.'s cellphone threatening to kill her and her family, according to the affidavit.

The victim identified as L.B said she was only 17 years old when "Chepe" came to her house in Guatemala last October and asked if she was interested in a $20-an-hour job at his daughter's jewelry store in Los Angeles, the affidavit says.

Smuggled into the U.S., the teenager said, she was picked up by Jeanette Vasquez Valenzuela, also known as "Miriam," and forced into prostitution in Los Angeles, charging men $70 for sex.

"L.B. cried and said she did not want to do that kind of work," the affidavit says. "Miriam told her that she did not have any other options because L.B. owed her $10,000."

Three months later, the affidavit says, L.B. was told it would cost $20,000 to buy her freedom.

Three months after that, L.B. told the agent, she unsuccessfully tried to escape with a male client and was beaten by three of the suspects and an accomplice. "The four women took turns kicking her and hitting her in the face," the affidavit says. "The next day, L.B. had to go to work with bruises all over her body."

Like the others, L.B. said, she also was threatened if she tried to escape, recalling how Jeanette Vasquez Valenzuela allegedly said she would "send someone to kill L.B.'s family and that she would cut L.B.'s legs off or sell her to a pimp" if she again tried to flee.

But one Sunday, she and I.C. did escape with a male customer, only because Gladys Vasquez Valenzuela was drinking and left them unsupervised.

The suspects were expected to enter pleas next month after an indictment is issued. The U.S. attorney's office said each count carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

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greg.krikorian@latimes.com

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