The girls were kept in a locked room above the cantina, the door dead-bolted from the outside. The second-floor prison had a bathroom, so the girls would hardly ever need to be let out. Sometimes, they were locked up all day, every day -- once, this stretched on for a month.
The door would only open whenever a "special client" arrived at Las Palmas II, a Telephone Road cantina with a facade brightly painted with a tranquil ocean scene and palm trees. Bar owner Hortencia Medeles-Arguello, also known as La Tencha, or her daughter Delia Diaz would show the customers around the room, explaining which girls had been working at the brothel the longest and which ones were "fresh meat," as if the men were picking cattle.
For the big spenders -- men willing to spend $350 to $500 for an hour with the girls, some as young as 14 years old -- La Tencha had hardly any rules. Anything goes, she told clients -- oral sex, anal sex, slapping and hitting. Just don't strike the girls in the face, she told them. It could depreciate their value.
The feds allege that La Tencha was the "matriarch" of the whole racket, a prostitution ring that smuggled, enslaved, and sold undocumented Mexican girls for at least a decade on Houston's southeast side. Last year an investigation by a task force of local and federal law enforcement agencies culminated in the arrests of over a dozen suspects, including La Tencha and several of her family members. Since then, 13 people have admitted to being involved in the operation, including four who pleaded guilty in federal court last week.
But the case against La Tencha still moves forward, and last week a judge set the case for a jury trial in February 2015, according to court records. Another suspect in the case is still at large -- Alfonso Diaz-Juarez, aka Poncho, a padrote, or pimp, who federal prosecutors claim ran the brothel for La Tencha toward the end as she grew more and more paranoid about detection from law enforcement.
The case of Las Palmas II, detailed in a lengthy federal indictment and transcripts from two detention hearings in federal court, is a stunning reminder of the callous brutality of such an operation, which the feds claim generated at least $12.6 million over the course of several years. While the case specifically mentions 12 victims, many of whom were underage when they were forced into sex work at Las Palmas II, prosecutors insist there had to have been hundreds more.
"[T]hough we rescued only 12 victims...there's good reason to believe that there were hundreds of victims, including minors who we were unable to rescue and whose lives have certainly been ruined," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruben R. Perez told a judge during a court hearing last year.
One FBI agent who investigated the case testified that La Tencha justified holding many of the young, undocumented girls captive by saying they owed her money for clothing, perfume, and food. La Tencha even charged the girls, who were stashed in a locked room above the bar, for rent, prosecutors allege. Their debts would sometimes grow by thousands of dollars without explanation, the FBI agent testified.
By 2011 La Tencha was becoming sufficiently worried that the operation had grown large enough to attract police attention. Most pimps were ordered to stay away; too often they'd get into brawls in or around the bar. One, who went by El Gallo, tattooed roosters on women he controlled, according to the feds. Poncho, meanwhile, told some of the women he controlled, who were undocumented immigrants, that they'd never see their children again if they didn't obey him.
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La Tencha eventually chose men like these to run the bar's day-to-day operations, prosecutors allege. Poncho -- who told his coworkers the best way to handle prostitutes was "with a stiff hand," according to prosecutors -- began running the brothel in November 2012, renaming the bar Nuevo Amanecer. La Tencha, however, was still a hands-on overseer, granting final approval to any new girl the pimps wanted to bring into the fold.
Prosecutors say many of the women and girls wanted so desperately to escape that they actually begged their clients for help.
According to federal prosecutors, the girls who "worked" for Tencha were also expected to chip in a fee for using the prostitution rooms above the cantina and for the condoms a bartender doled out to clients before they made their way up to the second floor. The young girls were beaten -- sometimes in front of each other, in order to prove a point -- when johns complained or left the cantina dissatisfied. Those who worked at the brothel who weren't confined to the locked room upstairs were usually dragged in by pimps and forced to work.
Whenever they'd show up with bruises, prosecutors claim, La Tencha would ask them, Why aren't you listening to your padrote?