International Human Trafficking
November 13, 2009
Human trafficking is a major problem in the United States , and the FBI takes this very seriously. There was a big international human sex trafficking case that moved from Guatemala to the Los Angeles , California area, and you may be shocked at the ages of women who were victims.
Mr. Schiff: Hello, I’m Neal Schiff and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases, and operations. Human trafficking is a major problem in the United States , and the FBI takes this very seriously. There was a big international human sex trafficking case that moved from Guatemala to the Los Angeles , California area, and you may be shocked at the ages of women who were victims.
Ms. Whitehill: “Ages of those women ranged from as young as 12 years old up to women in their mid-20s.”
Mr. Schiff: That’s Special Agent Tricia Whitehill in the FBI’s Los Angeles office. She says this case, which involved the activities of the Vasquez-Valenzuela family, and included nine subjects charged with conspiracy, sex trafficking, and various criminal immigration offenses.
Ms. Whitehill: “We work on a task force in Los Angeles called the Los Angeles Metro Area Task Force on Human Trafficking, and we work with various non-governmental organizations; one of them is called CAST—Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. CAST had received a phone call that they had a man who had some information about a family who was bringing girls, young girls, in from Guatemala and forcing them into prostitution. And so that was in early October, 2006 that CAST called the FBI and gave us the information from a tipster.”
Mr. Schiff: We asked Ms. Whitehill what agencies make up the Los Angeles Metro Area Task Force on Human Trafficking.
Ms. Whitehill: “We have various federal and local agencies. We work with ICE—the Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. At that time the Department of Labor was also on the task force, and then we also worked with the Los Angeles Police Department, and again, various non-governmental organizations, and some other local law enforcement agencies as well.”
Mr. Schiff: We talked with Ms. Whitehill about the tip that eventually reached the FBI, and also how agents and police investigated the allegations of a group of people forcing young women into prostitution.
Ms. Whitehill: “Well, in this case, fortunately the tipster, he worked for the family as a taxi driver. And he would drive, in this case it was a family from Guatemala , and each family member had their own apartment with their own victims. But they worked jointly, together, but each of them had their own little hut that they worked out of. In this case he worked for one of the main family members, the taxi driver did.
He would go pick her up with the girls that worked for her in the morning, and take them to the streets to find customers, and then take them to a different apartment where they would work as prostitutes.
And so he was willing to cooperate with law enforcement and helped us gather the evidence that we needed to indict the defendants in this case.”
Mr. Schiff: Ms. Whitehill then talked about investigators finding out what promises were made in Guatemala to these young victims to get them to come to the United States.
Ms. Whitehill: “My co-case agent from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and I actually went to Guatemala where the young girls were recruited and spoke to their families and, of course later, we got to know the victims as well. What would happen is, the perpetrators have family members in Guatemala who would go to these poor small towns where they had young daughters and ask the families whether their daughters would be interested in coming to work for their family in Los Angeles, and they indicated that their family, their daughters in L.A. had jewelry stores and restaurants where the girls could work and they would make a very good living and would be able to send that money home.
Of course these poor families in Guatemala were literally living in mud huts and had very little money and lots of children. So, that was basically the promise: jewelry stores and restaurants, mainly.
And then once they arrived in Los Angeles , they were immediately taken to get their eyebrows tattooed and their hair colored and they were told that now they had debts they had to pay off because the family had paid for them to be smuggled into the United States . So they were told they had debts between $10,000 and $20,000 and that they were going to have to work as prostitutes in order to pay that debt off.”
Mr. Schiff: And if the girls didn’t want to do what they were told, Ms. Whitehill says threats, strong threats, were made by this Vasquez-Valenzuela group they called a family.
Ms. Whitehill: “The women and young girls that were victimized were being held in apartments where there were internal locks; you couldn’t get out of the apartment. The windows were locked down so you couldn’t get out the windows. The family members would sleep by the doors with knives. So not only were they physically held captive, but they were also under constant threat.
Probably the biggest threat that was regularly made to all of the girls was if they thought about escaping, that the family would retaliate against the victim’s own families in Guatemala because they had been recruited in their homes in Guatemala . So that was the primary threat that kept many of the victims working for this family for a long period of time was the fear that their own families would be murdered in Guatemala.
But there were also multiple threats made. These women were physically beaten if they acted out of place, and then they were also regularly threatened with witchcraft, which was an interesting element in this case.
They had locks of hair taken from each of the victims that they would put into caldrons with witches if girls escaped, which some girls did. And they also took the girls to witches on a regular basis to determine whether the girls were having any thoughts about leaving, and if the witches indicated that the girls were thinking about leaving, there would be consequences for that as well.”
Mr. Schiff: The investigation into all this lasted about two months, and Ms. Whitehill says investigators primarily had the taxi driver—the human source—help in getting the important evidence in the case.
Ms. Whitehill: “You know, getting information about who, the names of the family members and who all was inside the house; the homes where the girls were being held.”
Mr. Schiff: During this time there was a lot of surveillance going on, and Ms. Whitehill says she and her co-agent from ICE actually arranged for two of the girls to escape.
Ms. Whitehill: “Through the help of our source, the taxi driver, we planned out for two of the girls to escape from one of the women. So that was an interesting operation that we worked, too. And then after the case was originally indicted in December of 2006, after that, the investigation picked up even further with going out to all of the neighborhoods where the girls were living and working, talking to all of the neighbors to see what their impression was—were the girls free to come and go or were they always guarded? What were the hours that the girls were coming and going? And then talking to the business owners where the girls would be taken to have their eyebrows tattooed or where the girls were getting their clothing and what have you.
Then we went to Guatemala to meet with the families of the girls that had been victimized to find out what promises were made to the families and to learn more about more about how old the girls were because these women and young girls were so uneducated and poor they didn’t know their own dates of birth. So we were collecting evidence such as birth certificates and wire receipts to try and determine how much money the family was making off of these girls. So that was some of what we did.”
Mr. Schiff: At some point in time, eight of the nine subjects, or family members, had been arrested. One person, a woman, remained at large for about a year-and-a-half. Ms. Whitehill says she was finally captured in Los Angeles thanks to publicity and a tip from the public.
Ms. Whitehill: “ There were nine defendants and they had all been offered various plea deals throughout the case. Four ultimately pled out to, basically, conspiracy to commit human trafficking; and then the remaining five defendants all went to trial in early 2009, earlier this year. They were all convicted of conspiracy and sex trafficking. The harshest sentence was 40 years for the leader of the family and another defendant got 35 years and the three remaining defendants who went to trial got 30 years.”
Mr. Schiff: The FBI and other federal agencies are very concerned with these kinds of activities. Don’t be afraid to call your local police department or nearest FBI office if you think there are illegal and criminal activities, such as human trafficking, going on near where you live or work. Check the Internet at www.fbi.gov or the front page of your phone book for the nearest FBI office. That’s our show for this week. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.