Sex Trafficking

Feds Convict Elderly Bar Owner Who Allowed Prostitution Upstairs as 'Sex Trafficking Ring Leader'

FBI says Hortencia Medeles-Arguello, 71, "should have known" some of the women were being controlled by pimps.

|

Las Palmas/Facebook

The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" columnist, Glenn Kessler, recently tackled human trafficking numbers, cautioning readers to "be wary" of these slippery statistics.* Because "modern slavery" (as advocates like to call it) flies under the radar, real numbers are relatively scarce, notes Kessler. But it's not just a paucity of data that complicates things: "the numbers can vary dramatically depending on the definition—and increasingly, the definition has been stretched."

This seems apropos to mention in light of the FBI's most recent "sex trafficking conspiracy" bust. In an April 24 press release, the agency trumpeted the federal jury conviction of "sex trafficking ring leader" Hortencia Medeles-Arguello, a 71-year-old Houston woman who goes by the nickname "Tencha."

Arguello "has been found guilty on all counts for her leadership role in a 16-defendant sex trafficking conspiracy," the FBI reported. "The verdict was returned today following a 10-day trial and approximately four hours of deliberations. She is the 14th defendant to have been convicted. 13 others have pleaded guilty, while two remain at large. This is believed to be the first sex trafficking case of this magnitude tried in the United States." 

The federal jury found Arguello guilty of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, conspiracy to harbor aliens, aiding and abetting to commit money laundering, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. She will be sentenced in July and faces life in prison. The feds also seized $2.5 million in assets from Arguello and her alleged associates.

So who is this apparent criminal mastermind, and how did she oversee an enterprise involving at least 13 sex-traffickers and countless trafficking victims?

Well, she owned a bar. And she didn't ask too many questions about what people were doing in rented rooms upstairs. 

Under federal anti-trafficking law, anyone who recruits, harbors, transports, provides, obtains, maintains, or benefits financially from someone forced into sex or labor can be charged with human trafficking. Knowing the victim is being trafficked is not a requirement, so long as prosecutors contend that someone acted "in reckless disregard" of this fact. 

At Arguello's trial and in the FBI press release, the focus is on "the horror of the ordeal" that victims, including undocumented immigrants from Mexico, suffered. "Testimony revealed that pimps recruited the young girls by convincing them they were in love, making threats to their families as well as threatening the girls themselves," states the FBI. 

But it doesn't minimize the suffering of these victims to be honest about the scope of this trafficking enterprise. The thread linking all these cases together is simply Arguello's establishment, Las Palmas II, a place where an array of individual actors—including willing sex workers and women who were being victimized by individual, unaffiliated pimps—engaged in commercial sex. The FBI contends that Arguello "should have known" that some of those selling sex in her establishment "were either underage or victims of the beatings by their pimps."

I obviously can't tell you whether Arguello should have known some of these women were being forced. But regardless, she was hardly masterminding some sort of organized smuggling and sexual exploitation ring, which is how federal prosecutors are portraying this. I'm not necessarily saying she's blameless, but that the realities of sex-trafficking cases are almost never as black and white as law enforcement officials would have them seem. 

While Arguello was convicted of sex trafficking, there were no such convictions for the individuals who actually recruited, assaulted, forced into prostitution, and kept money from victims. "The folks who actually did the sex trafficking and the sexual assaults were already sentenced based on favorable plea deals," Arguello's lawyer, Ali Fazel, told My San Antonio. He believes the charges against Arguello are politically motivated.

"They have a 'special' task force dedicated to human trafficking," Fazel said. "If you look the pimps up on this case you will notice they all got 60 months or something like that and none for the offense of sex trafficking," he continued. "So they need to make sure they have something to show folks in D.C. how they are working on the trafficking, justify budget issues."

* My favorite statement on this comes from a 2006 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report calling the U.S. State Department's human trafficking numbers into question. These estimates, GAO noted, were "in doubt because of methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies. For example, the U.S. government's estimate was developed by one person who did not document all his work." [Emphasis mine.]

NEXT: Two Gay Men Apologize, Face Boycotts for Talking to Ted Cruz

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “She is the 14th defendant to have been convicted. 13 others have pleaded guilty, ”

    Yep. That’s how the federal system works. You can take a plea and get 1 year in minimum security, or roll the dice at trial and get 45 years.

    1. Of, and of course the real crime here is the money laundering.

      Don’t steal from Uncle Sugar.

    2. The FBI probably spent several thousand man-hours in the bar making sure that they had “identified all of the players” and “building an iron-clad case”.

    3. Start making cash right now… Get more time with your family by doing jobs that only require for you to have a computer and an internet access and you can have that at your home. Start bringing up to $8596 a month. I’ve started this job and I’ve never been happier and now I am sharing it with you, so you can try it too. You can check it out here..—–.
      http://www.work-cash.com

      1. Is the pay by the minute, or the hour?

        1. by the second. I earned a billion dollars typing this.

    4. It works well in China. In order to keep our competitive advantage we need to borrow their tactics.

  2. I wish they’d go after corrupt cops and prosecutors with the same zeal. After all, a law degree implies much more “shoulda known” than owning a bar.

    1. LOL. You’re killing me, Scarecrow, you’re killing me.

  3. Keeping the streets safe. They’re heroes.

  4. Lots of whore down in Washington D.C.

    Arrest Obama as trafficker

      1. That’s the 3rd time I’ve used that line in HyR comments, the 2nd time apropos the thread, and the 1st time I got a rxn.

  5. Pimpin’ ain’t easy!

    1. But it’s necessary!

      1. I’m chasin’ bitches like Tom chased Jerry…

        1. So you’re a gay pimp…NTTAWWT

        2. You know how it’s done.

          1. Billy Ray Valentine: [Billy Ray is in jail] I wish my bitches would get here. I ain’t got time to be sitting in this cell with you.

            Even Bigger Black Guy: Where are your bitches, Mr. Big-Time Pimp?

            Big Black Guy: Yeah!

            Billy Ray Valentine: [to cellmate #2] Didn’t I tell you that the phone in my limousine is busted, and I can’t get in contact with my bitches?

            Cellmate #2: [to the Big Black Guy] Yeah! The phone in the limo was busted. What is ya, ignorant?

    2. No, it isn’t easy. It’s a big daddy thing type of few can handle.

      1. Err – It’s a big daddy type of thing few can handle.

        Ahem.

        1. Don’t mind him, y’all. He’s just stoned.

  6. “Testimony revealed that pimps recruited the young girls by convincing them they were in love…

    “You see, a pimp’s love is very different from that of a square.”

    1. JESUS COLLINS!

  7. The feds also seized $2.5 million in assets from Arguello and her alleged associates.

    And here we see the true motivation behind this prosecution.

    1. For the win.

    2. If that ho tricked until she was 40, she still wouldn’t be worth no two and a half mil!

  8. Of course this will add to the stats on “Human Trafficking”, much as someone who missed a meal adds to “Starvation in the US!”

    1. Oops.
      RTFA, Sevo.

  9. So, the prosecutors made plea deals with the actual traffickers to prosecute someone marginally related to the trafficking.

    Tell you what, I’ll start thinking trafficking is a serious problem when the prosecutors start acting as if it’s a serious problem.

  10. I’m amazed that WaPo actually tackled the bullshit that is sex-trafficking statistics.

    My personal favorite is the assertion that 100,000-300,000 children are ‘at risk’ of sex-trafficking. This number included everyone under 18 who is transgendered and anyone within a certain distance of the Mexican or Canadian border who had access to a car.

    When the Village Voice asked the people who ran the study how many children they can actually prove are sex-trafficked (as opposed to being ‘at risk’) the social scientists admitted the real number is probably about 100.

    So they were only off by 1000x, but only an apologist for sex-traffickers would point that out.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.