A federal grand jury in Los Angeles has indicted nine people, including six members of the same family, for allegedly running a sex trafficking ring that lured young women and girls from Guatemala with the promise of honest work but then forced them into prostitution.
The 50-count indictment, unsealed Thursday, represents the largest sex trafficking case prosecuted in Southern California by the federal government in at least a decade, the U.S. attorney's office said.
It replaces smuggling charges first filed in December and adds both additional defendants and various charges, including sex trafficking of children and violation of the Mann Act, which bans the interstate or foreign transport of minors for prostitution.
The investigation by various federal and local agencies began last October when authorities were contacted by two alleged victims of the prostitution ring and a male customer who helped them escape. The following month, authorities say, they rescued two other women from the scheme.
According to the indictment, the victims were recruited in Guatemala for what they believed were legitimate jobs as baby-sitters, waitresses and other positions, then smuggled across the border with the understanding that they would repay the people who had helped them get into the United States.
Once in the U.S., they were forced into prostitution to repay inflated smuggling debts.
The minors were ordered to lie and say they were older than 18 if questioned by customers or the police, the indictment alleges.
In one case, an underage girl was told to solicit customers from a car rather than walking in downtown Los Angeles near 8th and Alvarado streets with other prostitutes.
Throughout their ordeal, authorities charge, the young women and girls were kept in line with the threat that if they did not repay their debts or tried to escape, they or their families -- including children -- would be beaten or killed.
The defendants, all of whom are in the United States illegally, also took some victims to reputed "witch doctors" in Los Angeles, warning them that a curse would be placed on them and their families in Guatemala if they tried to escape.
"This case is particularly egregious because the victims, some of whom were as young as 13 years old, all came here believing they would have a better life and could make money that they could send back to their families," federal prosecutor Caroline Wittcoff said. "Then, when they got here, they were all forced into a nightmare of prostitution."
J. Stephen Tidwell, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles office, said the case was a "dreadful" crime that was solved as part of a large effort by federal and local law enforcement agencies -- including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Los Angeles Police Department -- to combat human trafficking.
"This was one of those cases in which you could not succeed if you did it piecemeal" with individual agencies, he said.
Named in the indictment are Gladys Vasquez Valenzuela; her sisters, Mirna Jeanneth Vasquez Valenzuela and Albertina Vasquez Valenzuela; Albertina's children, Maria de los Angeles Vicente and Luis Vicente Vasquez; and Maribel Rodriguez Vasquez, who is the niece of Gladys, Mirna and Albertina.
Also charged were Mirna's live-in boyfriend, Gabriel Mendez; Maria's live-in boyfriend, Pablo Bonifacio; and Luis' live-in girlfriend, Flor Morales Sanchez.
All nine live in Los Angeles, the FBI said.
The most serious charges that many of the defendants face carry mandatory minimum sentences of 10 to 15 years for each count, Wittcoff said.