A federal court jury on Wednesday convicted five people in connection with a plot to lure impoverished young women from Guatemala to the United States with the promise of legitimate jobs, only to then force them into prostitution to repay their supposed debts for being smuggled into the country.
All five defendants are illegal immigrants themselves, four of them women from Guatemala who also worked as prostitutes.
As the verdicts were read, the five defendants sat expressionless, as they did through much of the monthlong trial before U.S. District Judge Margaret M. Morrow. Each of the five faces a potential life sentence, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
The case presented by prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of 10 young women who said they were forced to work as prostitutes and turn over their pay to the defendants. Only one woman said she knew she was going to work in the sex trade before arriving in Los Angeles. The others said they were expecting to work as baby sitters, housekeepers, waitresses or in other jobs in which they hoped to earn up to $10 an hour, far more than they could in Guatemala.
Only after they arrived in the U.S., the young women testified, were they told the truth about what they would be doing.
"These defendants exploited their hopes for a better life in the United States," Assistant U.S. Atty. Cheryl Murphy told jurors shortly before they were given the case last week.
After five days of deliberations, the panel convicted all five defendants of the most serious charge they were facing: sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion. The defendants were also convicted of conspiracy and importing and harboring illegal immigrants for the purpose of prostitution.
In often tearful testimony during the trial, the victims described having sex with up to 30 men a day. Several testified that they were forced to work while ill or menstruating, or both.
The victims said they were almost always watched by the defendants and were beaten and threatened with violence, even witchcraft, to keep them from trying to escape.
A girl identified as Esperanza, who was allegedly 17 when she arrived in the U.S. in 2005, said she was told her legs would be cut off and her entire family killed if she tried to escape. Another girl, identified as Rosaura, sobbed throughout her testimony and told jurors that defendant Gladys Vasquez Valenzuela threatened to throw acid on her face if she ever tried to leave.
After Wednesday's verdict, two of the five women on the jury said they were too upset to discuss their deliberations. Another, a 52-year-old grandmother from Altadena who asked that her name not be used, said: "It was nauseating, difficult to listen to."
At trial, prosecutors argued that five of the young women were under 18 when they arrived in the U.S. One had never left her rural village before making the dangerous trek north in the company of human smugglers. Two others continued to dress in costumes for Halloween and decorate their bedroom with stuffed animals, even after they had been taught to dress like hookers and were shown how to use condoms.
But jurors said prosecutors failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the young women were underage.
"Not that they didn't look young -- they did," said Daniel Williams, a 59-year-old Exxon Mobil employee from Hawthorne. "But they didn't have proof."
The main defendant in the case was Valenzuela. According to prosecutors, Valenzuela, her sister, Mirna, and two of their nieces came to Los Angeles years ago and began working as prostitutes in the area around MacArthur Park. The women, along with Mirna's husband, Gabriel Mendez, then hatched the plot to force other young women from their rural Guatemalan village into the sex trade. They were arrested after a former employee helped some of the women escape and began cooperating with the FBI.
During the trial, defense attorneys sought to portray the young women as lying opportunists who had agreed to work as prostitutes before they left Guatemala. They pointed to inconsistencies between their courtroom testimony and statements the women made when they were initially interviewed by FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents more than two years ago. They also told jurors the women had motive to lie because if they were victims in the case as opposed to defendants it would help them secure legal residency in this country.
Though the women may have appeared weepy and vulnerable on the witnesses stand, they were in fact "seasoned liars" who came into court "ready, willing and able to lie," attorney Jeff Price told jurors during his closing arguments.
Dana Cephas, another defense attorney, suggested during his closing that the women may have willingly turned to prostitution to escape the poverty and despair of their lives in Guatemala.
This drew a stinging retort from Murphy, who prosecuted the case with Assistant U.S. Attys. Curtis Kin and Anthony Lewis.
"It's better to be a whore in the United States than it is to be poor in Guatemala," the prosecutor said rhetorically as she addressed the panel before they began deliberations.
"That is an insult not only to the whole nation of Guatemala," she said, "but to all of the women in this case."