HOUSTON (AP) — A sex-trafficking operation in Houston that made at least $12.6 million over more than a decade by using violence to force underage girls and women who are living in the U.S. illegally into prostitution has been shut down, authorities announced on Friday.
Federal, state and local officials have arrested 13 of 14 people who were indicted for their alleged roles in the operation, including the alleged 66-year-old ringleader. The 14th person indicted remains a fugitive, officials said.
The arrests took place Thursday night in a coordinated sweep of almost a dozen locations, including several bars.
Those indicted face charges that include sex trafficking conspiracy, conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens, money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
"This ring victimized women and young girls who were brought here from Mexico and forced into the sex trade through violence and intimidation," said Stephen L. Morris, the special agent in charge of Houston's FBI office. "Nowhere in the world, especially right here in Houston should any human being be trafficked for profit or used as a reusable commodity."
The federal indictment unsealed Friday names Hortencia Medeles-Arguello as the ringleader who owned and operated the four bars in east and southeast Houston where authorities say the girls and women were forced into prostitution. Authorities said the sex-trafficking operation was a family affair, as Medeles-Arguello's three daughters, brother, sister and niece also took part in the scheme and were indicted as well.
Court records did not list an attorney for Medeles-Arguello or the other 12 who were arrested and appeared in federal court Friday. Authorities say they are still looking for one defendant, Alfonso Diaz-Juarez, 45, from Mexico.
Medeles-Arguello, also known as Raquel Medeles Garcia, and others who worked for her would charge men anywhere from $65 to $500 to have sex with the girls and women for 15 minutes in rooms located upstairs in the bars or sometimes in nearby hotels, according to the indictment.
The "minor and adult females were locked in an upstairs room" at one bar and were allowed to "come out of the locked room when a special client or big spender paid to have sex with one of them," the indictment said. Authorities say some of the underage girls were between 14 and 17 years old.
The girls and women were sometimes beaten by Medeles-Arguello and others if they "did not keep the clients happy," the indictment said.
Prosecutors allege in the indictment that the girls and women were often smuggled into the U.S. illegally by either Medeles-Arguello or by pimps, also known as "padrotes."
Some of the girls and women were told by Medeles-Arguello that they weren't free to leave until they paid her back money Medeles-Arguello had spent on them for clothing, food and rent, authorities said.
Authorities allege Medeles-Arguello would keep increasing the debt the girls and women allegedly owed, with one of the victims being told she owed $2,000 but then later being informed her debt had increased to $5,000.
Medeles-Arguello told this victim "and other minor and adult females locked in the room together that they were her property until they paid the money owed to her," according to the indictment.
Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia said some of the victims started "this horrific way of life ... by the promise of love, the promise of luxury, the promise of a better life. All are lies."
Morris said before Thursday evening's arrests, 12 victims — five of whom were as young as 15 — had been rescued from the sex-trafficking ring. An additional 41 individuals were taken into custody during the raids and officials are still determining if they are victims or witnesses.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: www.twitter.com/juanlozano70.