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.]