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| Crime |

"Matriarch" of Underage Sex-Trafficking Ring Sentenced to Life in Prison

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On Wednesday a federal judge handed down a life sentence to the “matriarch” of a massive sex-trafficking ring that operated for years out of a southeast side cantina.

The feds have called Hortencia “Tencha” Medeles, 70, the ringleader of a squalid Telephone Road brothel that trafficked in underage girls for more than a decade. The U.S. Attorney's Office, which prosecuted Medeles and 13 co-defendants, one of whom remains at large, released a statement Wednesday stressing the magnitude of the case:

This landmark sex trafficking case is one of the most significant in scope and magnitude to be tried to a verdict of guilty on all counts, and one of the few in which as many as 12 victims of an international sex trafficking scheme came forward to testify at trial. Twelve victims rescued in connection with this case testified at trial regarding the horrors of their ordeals, beginning with being recruited in their home countries, only to be forced into prostitution against their will in the United States. Some victims were as young as 14 when the traffickers recruited them, using fraud and false pretenses to lure them into the traffickers’ control.

The feds claim Medeles oversaw an operation that made at least $12 million off undocumented Mexican girls who were smuggled, enslaved and then sold out of the Las Palmas II cantina. That's likely a low-ball number, considering the feds allege Medeles personally pocketed $1.6 million over just a 19-month period.

Court testimony paints an operation that was stunning both in scope and brutality. The girls were reportedly locked inside a room above the bar for hours, sometimes days at a time. Medeles or an employee, like her daughter Delia Diaz, would escort “special clients” to the girls' room, explaining which ones had worked at the brothel longest and which ones were “fresh meat.” For men willing to spend $350 to $500 for an hour with a girl, sometimes as young as 14 years old, Medeles had hardly any rules. Just don't hit them in the face, she told clients. It depreciates their value.

The case against Medeles and her co-conspirators specifically mentioned 12 victims, many of whom delivered agonizing testimony at Medeles's sentencing hearing on Wednesday, according to the Houston Chronicle. Prosecutors, however, insist that given the size and duration of the operation, it's likely hundreds of girls were victimized at Las Palmas II.

One FBI agent who investigated the case testified that Medeles justified holding many of the young, undocumented girls captive by accusing them of owing her money for clothing, perfume and food. Even though the girls were locked in a cramped, dank room above the bar, Medeles charged them for rent. Sometimes their debts would grow by thousands of dollars without explanation. Prosecutors say many of the girls wanted so desperately to escape that they actually begged their “clients” for help.

Medeles was convicted by a jury last year on multiple trafficking, conspiracy and money laundering counts, while 12 other co-defendants have all pleaded guilty, according to federal prosecutors. The feds are still searching for another suspect in the case, Alfono Diaz-Juarez, a pimp who prosecutors claim ran the brothel for Medeles in its final years as she grew more and more paranoid about detection from law enforcement. They ask that anyone with knowledge of his whereabouts contact the FBI at 713-693-5000. 

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