Cantina Workers in Houston: Sex Trafficked

27 04 2009

Women working in cantinas in Houston were trafficked and held in servitude. Now the mastermind is going to jail. People, this happens right in front of our eyes. This happened in the UNITED STATES…less than 200 miles from where I live in Austin. This is a typical story of human/sex trafficking. Take the time to read it. Be alert. You might save a life.

The U.S. Department of Justice website says here is how to report trafficking:

Report trafficking crimes or get help by calling the toll-free hotline 1-888-428-7581 (voice and TTY).

Here’s the article from today’s Houston Chronicle:

Sex-trafficking ringleader gets 13 years in prison

By Lise Olsen

Salvadoran smuggled Central American women into servitude at cantinas


He previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for recruiting and trafficking dozens of women and girls to Houston for commercial gain and for holding them “in a condition of indentured servitude.”

Maximino Mondrago - Credit: Houston Chronicle
Maximino Mondrago – Credit: Houston Chronicle

Along with others convicted in the case, he has also been ordered to pay $1.7 million in restitution to victims, some of whom have obtained visas to stay in the United States and still live in the area.

The case involving Maximino Mondragon, 57, remains one of the largest human trafficking rings ever uncovered in the United States.

The Chronicle reported last year that Mondragon lured the women to the United States with false promises of legitimate jobs. Once here, traffickers charged the women huge fees for their trip and expenses and held them as prisoners until they could work off what, for many, seemed to be impossible debts.

The women were forced to wear skimpy clothes and sell high-priced drinks to men at local cantinas who were then allowed to touch them.

Mondragon “ruthlessly exploited these women’s hopes for a better life through coercion, false promises and threats of harm. The victims were forced into modern day slavery,” Loretta King, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., said in a statement Monday. “The Justice Department will devote its efforts to prosecuting those who commit such abhorrent and exploitative crimes.”

More than 120 women were liberated on the night of Nov. 13, 2005, when Mondragon and his fellow defendants were arrested in a massive nighttime raid of five of their bars and restaurants in seedy strip malls in northwest Houston.

Mondragon is the last of eight ring members to be convicted and sentenced.

According to records, Mondragon ran cantinas in Houston for more than a decade, along with Walter Corea. Both are natives of El Salvador. Five members of their families and a female abortionist were previously convicted and sentenced as accomplices.

“The victims in this case were subjected to horrible treatment at the hands of these defendants,” said Tim Johnson, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas.

Several victims told the Chronicle they were threatened and beaten or told their families back home would be harmed or killed if they attempted escape. Most lived in low-rent apartments or houses watched over by ring members or by security cameras.

Mondragon, a legal permanent resident, his girlfriend and two siblings owned and operated most of the businesses used for trafficking. Corea was accused of serving as chief trafficker, importing women from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras for the ring. Illegally in the United States, he also ran a bar here with his wife and son.

Houston’s Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance spent a year investigating and assembling a case against Mondragon.

On the night of the raid, Mondragon was holding his own farewell party in his bar, El Potrero de Chimino, also known as the Wagon Wheel, on Hempstead Highway. He’d purchased a one-way ticket back home to El Salvador.

That ticket went unused.

International Free the Slaves Awareness Day

26 03 2009

Did you know that there are 27 million slaves worldwide today? Shocking, isn’t it? March 27 is International Free the Slaves Awareness Day. Free the Slaves is a not for profit organization that “… liberates slaves around the world, helps them rebuild their lives and researches real world solutions to eradicate slavery forever.” They have a 25-year plan to eradicate slavery. Here are facts they list about slavery:


Think slavery doesn’t exist in the U.S.? Think again. Slaves are harbored in 90 U.S. cities. An estimated 50% of the over 14,500 – 17,500 slaves trafficked into the U.S. each year are sex slaves; the other 50% are in the agriculture, domestic service, manufacturing, and other industries.

The largest numbers of slaves – as many as 18 million – are in Pakistan, Nepal, and India. The Free the Slaves website has an interactive map you can click on to find out about slavery in any part of the world.

President Obama calls human slavery a “top priority.” In a March 24, 2009 White House press release, “President Barack Obama announced his intent to nominate Luis C. de Baca as Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department.” If you want to help, Free the Slaves has a whole page of suggestions.

You can read other posts I have written about slavery/trafficking:

The average citizen in the U.S. can possibly save a person being held in slavery by being alert to things that don’t seem right and being inquisitive. A slave may even be a teenager living with their family and being coerced into sexual slavery as is the case in the post mentioned above.

Watch this excellent video from Free the Slaves with personal stories of people enslaved under false pretenses. The resiliency and spirit of people who have been through this horror is amazing. Join Free the Slaves and the many other excellent organizations such as and FreeGirl Foundation that work to stamp out human slavery and trafficking. We all bear responsibility for our brothers and sisters all over the world.

Is Your Neighbor a Victim of Slavery?

17 11 2008

Slavery may be going on in your neighborhood. It happened in mine. Texas is a major hub for human trafficking per a report released today by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. One out of every five victims of human trafficking have been in or travelled through Texas. The Department of Justice includes Houston and El Paso, which both lie along Interstate 10, in its list of “most intense trafficking jurisdictions in the country.”

How big a problem is human trafficking? “The Texas Response to Human Trafficking” report says:

The U.S. Department of State’s most recent Trafficking in Persons Report estimates that approximately 800,000 victims are trafficked across international borders each year. Of those victims, between 14,500 and 17,500 are trafficked into the U.S. from Asia, Central and South America, and Eastern Europe. These figures do not include the large number of victims trafficked within their own countries, including domestic victims in the U.S. The State Department also estimates that of those trafficked internationally, 80 percent are female and 50 percent are children.

The report distinguishes human trafficking from smuggling, which is usually done with the participant’s consent. Human trafficking victims:

…Are forced to work in domestic servitude, sweatshops, agricultural industries and the commercial sex trade, which includes prostitution, exotic dancing, pornography and live-sex shows. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, human trafficking victims can be found working in ordinary locations, including hotels, restaurants and private residences, and are often “hiding in plain sight.”

I lived in a very nice neighborhood a few years back and was shocked to find out that there was a house a block over from mine where it was discovered that a prostitution ring was being run. These girls were human trafficking victims. We may see these people, but we don’t know the suffering they are enduring. Often they are brought to the U.S. on promises of good work, but then are forced into prostitution to pay over-inflated expenses and even to pay for drugs these women are forcibly given. These young women and even children have no way out.

The Texas report cites a 2001 University of Pennsylvania study, which:

…estimated that between 244,000 and 325,000 U.S. children and youth are ’at risk’ of becoming victims of sexual exploitation, including as victims of commercial sexual exploitation (e.g. child pornography, juvenile prostitution, and trafficking in children for sexual purposes).

In October 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act  to protect human trafficking victims. The goals of this act are to prevent human trafficking abroad, to protect victims and help them rebuild their lives, and to harshly prosecute traffickers. Over the next five years, 42 federally-funded Bureau of Justice Assistance task forces were created in the U.S. to combat human trafficking, with 5 of those being in Texas (Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio).

According to the report, Texas was “…one of the first states to introduce legislation criminalizing human trafficking. Introduced in 2003 and amended in 2007, the state statute is relatively new and largely untested.” Some of the findings in the report:

 • The need for training permeates the entire cycle of human trafficking, from the early detection of the crime, investigation and subsequent prosecution, to the delivery of services and ultimately to the prevention of the crime, and is vital for educating and  cross-training all those working to assist victims of human trafficking.
• Human trafficking is often confused with human smuggling, and victims are often treated as criminals.
• Sex trafficking is often confused with prostitution, and victims are often treated as criminals.
• The state statute is rarely utilized to prosecute human trafficking violations.
• The perception exists that only foreign nationals become human trafficking victims, and there are significant incidents of domestic trafficking within Texas and between states.
• Collaboration among state and federal law enforcement agencies promote better prosecution, protection and prevention of human trafficking violations.

I applaud the State of Texas for taking human trafficking seriously and seeking ways to help victims of this horrendous crime. Just as it happened in my suburban neighborhood, you could be living amongst or interacting with people who are in the throes of being treated as a slave. If you notice something that doesn’t look right to you, I urge you to have the courage to report it. You may just save a life.