Participants in a sex-trafficking ring who tricked young women from Central America into coming to North Carolina and forced them into prostitution have already completed sentences ranging from 18 months to three years after being charged in late 2010 and early 2011.

Bryan Burnett, a special agent with federal Immigration Customs Enforcement, ran across a young Guatemalan woman who was being held as a sex slave during a police raid on a suspected brothel on Dec. 2, 2010. She was found at a rental house on Fitch Street in the Diggs neighborhood near Winston-Salem State University.

Consuela Garcia — a fictitious name created to protect the woman’s identity for the purpose of telling this story — told authorities she was afraid of the other people in the house, and Burnett took her to his office to be interviewed.

The special investigations division of the Winston-Salem Police Department concluded an investigation into organized prostitution in January. Throughout the course of the investigation, which began in 2009 and included multiple local and federal law enforcement agents, 40 individuals were arrested and charged with a total of 76 state and federal charges, according to the police department. Thirty of the 40 people were reportedly arrested in Winston-Salem. Twenty-five brothels were identified across the state, including nine in Winston-Salem.

According to an affidavit filed by Burnett in support of federal sex-trafficking charges, Garcia had illegally crossed the US-Mexican border near Hidalgo, Texas. Border Patrol agents arrested Garcia and 18 other undocumented persons at a safehouse near the border, and the woman was taken to the Hutto CCA Detention Facility in Taylor, Texas.

Garcia met a woman named Ondia Alonso-Hernandez at the detention center. Alonso-Hernandez told Garcia that she would post bond for her, and that she had a house in North Carolina where she could live while working off her debt by cleaning houses.

On Nov. 2, 2010, Garcia flew into Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where she met Ramon Gandia, one of Alonso-Hernandez’s associates. Gandia drove Garcia to a house on Southwin Drive, off of Country Club Road in Winston-Salem. For about a week, Garcia cooked and cleaned at the house under the supervision of a man named Marvin Saul Martinez-Alcantara.

Five days after Garcia’s arrival in North Carolina, a couple developments must have tipped her off that something was amiss. On Nov. 7, Gandia drove her to a trailer in Sanford, where a Honduran woman named Amadelia Guardado looked her over and then told Gandia: “I’ll take her.” Then they returned to Winston-Salem.

The next morning Garcia awoke to find another woman at the Southwin Drive house getting dressed in sexy and provocative clothing.

A week later, as Burnett described in his affidavit, Martinez-Alcantara came into Garcia’s room and told her “that he was instructed by Alonso-Hernandez to explain things,” that she would be required to work as a prostitute to retire her debt. He gave her condoms, a bottle of alcohol, towels and toilet paper, and showed her how to put on a condom using a banana. When Garcia protested, Martinez-Alcantara reportedly told her “she didn’t know what Alonso-Hernandez was like, that she was ‘bad’ and ‘has more balls than a man.’”

During the conversation, Garcia spoke to Alonso-Hernandez, who was in jail at the time.

According to Burnett’s affidavit, Alonso-Hernandez told Garcia that if she tried to flee or failed to work as a prostitute, immigration would be contacted and Garcia’s bond would be revoked. The document goes on to say that Alonso-Hernandez instructed Garcia “to send $100 to her commissary account the first time and then to send $130 the next time, but this would not be considered a payment against her debt, but a favor.”

For the next five days, Garcia was forced to perform sexual services to about 30 men, according to the affidavit. Garcia told Burnett that each sex act represented a $15 deduction from her debt, but that the customers paid Martinez-Alcantara $30, and that he also told her she owed rent for living at the house on Southwin Drive.

Then, for a week, Garcia was transported to the trailer in Sanford, and forced to work as a prostitute.

Burnett reported that on a subsequent visit to the trailer, law enforcement officers discovered lingerie, condoms, personal lubricants, moist antibacterial wipes, a ledger with notations for the day of the week and a daily tally, along with a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun.

On Nov. 28, Martinez-Alcantara arrived at the trailer with another prostitute, to whom Garcia turned over her weekly earnings of $570 to be delivered to Alonso-Hernandez.

The next day, a man known only as Toval transported Garcia to the brothel on Fitch Street in Winston-Salem, which was operated by Mauro Aparicio-Hernandez and Agusto Valverde-Morales.

Another sex-trafficking victim, whom Special Agent Burnett interviewed in January 2010, provided a similar, but even more brutal account of the prostitution ring operated by Ondia Alonso-Hernandez.

Claudia Gonzalez, not her real name, told Burnett that Alonso-Hernandez lured her to North Carolina from her native Honduras by offering to pay to smuggle Rodriguez into the United States if she would agree to work for Alonso-Hernandez at her cleaning business in North Carolina.

Gonzalez arrived in Greensboro in January 2009. After a week, according to a separate affidavit filed by Burnett, Alonso-Hernandez told Gonzalez that instead of cleaning houses she would be having sex with men. When Gonzalez protested that she did not want to work as a prostitute, Alonso-Hernandez reportedly told Gonzalez that she knew where her mother and son lived in Honduras and would harm them if Gonzalez didn’t follow orders, stating, “I have many ways to hurt them.”

According to the affidavit, Alonso-Hernandez drove Gonzalez to a brothel on Boulevard Street off High Point Road in Greensboro. There, Gonzalez met Jose Javier Cruz-Nunez — later encountered in Winston-Salem by Consuela Garcia. Gonzalez learned from Alonso-Hernandez that “Cruz-Nunez was in charge of selling ‘tickets’ to customers to have sex with the girls working in the brothel.”

In her first month working as a prostitute, Gonzalez told Burnett that a client complained because she would not perform oral sex, and that afterward Cruz-Nunez slapped and punched the side and back of her head, explaining that he hit her there “because bruises and lumps would not be visible.”

Gonzalez told Burnett that when the women “got out of line,” Cruz-Nunez would call in Jose “Waulberto” Larin to discipline them. She said that several customers complained to Cruz-Nunez because she cried during sex. Soon afterwards, she said, Larin and three other men showed up at the brothel. Larin grabbed Gonzalez “and told her he was ‘going to show her how it was done,’” the affidavit reads. “Then, one after another, Larin and the three other Hispanic males forcefully raped her.”

Ondia Alonso-Hernandez, Amadelia Guardado, Ramon Luis Gandia, Melvin Martinez-Alcantara, and Mauro Aparicio-Hernandez were charged by federal authorities in early 2011. Alonso-Hernandez, who was in detention and facing deportation at the time, was charged with sex trafficking, while Guardado, Gandia, Martinez-Alcantara and Aparicio-Hernandez were charged with importation of an alien for immoral purposes. Jose Javier Cruz-Nunez, identified in court documents as someone who managed brothels for Alonso-Hernandez, and Jose Larin, alleged to have participated in the gang-rape of one of the prostitutes, were charged with sex trafficking, but prosecutors dropped charges against the two men. Randy Tysinger, a spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of North Carolina said he did not know why the charges were dropped.

The remaining five received federal prison sentences ranging from 18 months to three years, and federal prison records indicate all have completed their sentences.

Stacey Rubain, the lawyer appointed to defend Alonso-Hernandez, said at the December 2011 sentencing that her client grew up in a troubled household in Honduras where her father abused her. Alonso-Hernandez, who is now 32, got pregnant by her boyfriend in Honduras and her father sent her to live in the United States. She worked in restaurants in Florida while her children stayed back with her mother in Honduras. When Alonso-Hernandez’s mother got sick with cancer, she started working as a prostitute so she could send money back to Honduras to support the family. To add to the family’s troubles, the father of Alonso-Hernandez’s children shot and killed her younger brother.

“So I ask you to take into consideration the fact that my family needs me a great deal, both my daughters and their mother, and that I am really sorry for what I did,” Alonso-Hernandez told Judge Catherine Eagles during her sentencing in December 2011. “I am truly repentant for it; and we are all human beings, and I think as human beings we all do make mistakes, and I am having to pay for mine.”

Under Alonso-Hernandez’s plea agreement, she faced a maximum sentence of life in prison for the crime of sex trafficking, which is defined as “recruiting, harboring or transporting a person to engage in a forced commercial sex act.” Under federal law, the court must consult sentencing guidelines but is not bound by them.

Judge Catherine Eagles opened her remarks during Alonso-Hernandez’s sentencing by noting that Judge James Beaty has “sentenced the rest of these folks, which explains why I didn’t remember it.” Before handing down a three-year prison sentence the judge acknowledged the prosecution’s argument about Alonso-Hernandez’s “role in taking advantage of a vulnerable person and basically initiating this time,” but agreed to a downward departure.

“In view of the sentences of her codefendants who were the ones imposing the physical restraints on the victim, I will sentence her below the guideline range in view of that disparity.”

The sentences of the other four defendants, who were charged with importation of an alien for immoral purposes, ranged from 18 months to Gandia and Martinez-Alcantara to two years to Aparicio-Hernandez.

Anne Littlejohn, the lawyer who was appointed to represent Aparicio-Hernandez, disputed the prosecution’s contention in the factual basis document that her client had threatened Consuela Garcia while she was forced to work as a prostitute at the Fitch Street house.

“When she mentioned about whether or not she could go to the police, what he said to her was that she could be in worse trouble doing that,” Littlejohn told Judge Beaty. “I mean, she’s a prostitute, she’s here illegally and her goal, always her goal was to get and stay in the United States and work, and going to the police would simply get her deported again, and that was the context of the conversation, not that she was going to be threatened by him or he was going to do her any harm or had any intention of doing any harm to her.

“Quite frankly, Judge, you know, two other prostitutes that were in this house that were interviewed by law enforcement, were in fact deported,” Littlejohn added, “so what he was saying to her was in fact a reality of her going to the police about it.”

Federal law provides some protection to women who are the victims of sex trafficking. Persons who have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse due to criminal activity in a wide variety of categories, including trafficking and prostitution, may apply for a U visa, which provides temporary legal status and work eligibility in the United States for up to four years. The federal government grants only 10,000 U visas per year.

Tysinger, the spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office of the Middle District, said he didn’t know the victim’s status, including whether she had been granted a U visa or received any kind of immunity from deportation.

In the murky world of international sex trafficking, victims and perpetrators disappear quickly from public view, through permeable national borders and between the criminal underground and the criminal justice system.

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