HOUSTON – Two U.S. defendants are in custody on allegations of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion, as well as visa fraud, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez.
A grand jury in Houston returned an indictment against purported Houston bounty hunter Luis De Jesus Rodriguez aka Htown Hunter, 26, and his girlfriend Helen Leon Mesa, 28, yesterday, which was unsealed today upon their arrests. They are expected to make their initial appearances before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dena Palarmo on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. The indictment remains sealed as to another charged but not as yet in custody.
According to the partially-unsealed indictment, this international criminal network targeted, recruited and exploited young women in Colombia and the United States. They were allegedly given false promises of a better life by working for Rodriguez and Mesa as dancers at a Houston nightclub. During the victims’ recruitment, the defendants also directed them to watch YouTube videos portraying Rodriguez as a bounty hunter, creating the false impression that he was a law enforcement officer, according to the allegations.
The indictment further alleges that once the victims arrived in the United States, Rodriguez and Mesa placed the victims in a strip club in Houston and forced them into signing debt bondage contracts, ranging from $13,200 to $25,000. Rodriguez and Mesa also allegedly required victims to make daily payments of approximately $250 towards their debt. The charges also allege that to compel the victims into paying this daily quota, Rodriguez and Mesa engaged in a coercive scheme which involved threats to harm the victims and their families, constant monitoring and surveillance of their locations and cellphones and the ultimately forcing them into engaging in commercial sex acts.
According to the indictment, the defendants also engaged in widespread visa fraud to facilitate the international transportation of the victims. The traffickers and their conspirators allegedly assisted the victims in obtaining fraudulent visas by creating fictitious background and occupations to increase the likelihood that their visa applications would be approved. They also coached the victims as to what to say during the visa application interviews, according to the indictment.
If convicted of sex trafficking, the defendants face a minimum of 15 years and up to life imprisonment. The visa fraud charges carry a maximum of 10 years of federal imprisonment.
The Department of State - Diplomatic Security Service, Houston Police Department Vice Division – Human Trafficking Unit and IRS - Criminal Investigation conducted the investigation with assistance from the FBI as part of the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance (HTRA). The General Attorney’s Office of Colombia, Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Harris County District Attorney’s Office also assisted with the overall investigative effort.
Established in 2004, the United States Attorney’s office in Houston formed the HTRA to combine resources with federal, state and local enforcement agencies and prosecutors, as well as non-governmental service organizations to target human traffickers while providing necessary services to those that the traffickers victimized. Since its inception, HTRA has been recognized as a national model in identifying and assisting victims of human trafficking and prosecuting those engaged in trafficking offenses. In 2016, the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance received $1.5 million in federal funds from the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Office for Victims of Crime through the Enhanced Collaborative Model Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force Program, which provides funding to investigate and prosecute cases of human trafficking and provide services to victims.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Eun Kate Suh and Zahra Jivani Fenelon are prosecuting the case with assistance from the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, including the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit.
An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence.
A defendant is presumed innocent unless convicted through due process of law.