Testimony: Women smuggled from Mexico to be Gwinnett prostitutes

Rosalina was 23 and had never had a boyfriend when Amador Cortes-Meza  took her to a fair about an hour’s drive from her home in rural Mexico, she testified Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.

It was on that first date that Cortes-Meza said he would marry her in three months and they would go to the United States where there were many good jobs in restaurants.

Instead, he took her to the United States, to Lawrenceville, to be a prostitute. Until then, Rosalina worked in her godmother’s bakery in Oaxaca.

“She had never been with a man before,” said assistant U.S. attorney Karima Maloney in her opening statement in a federal human trafficking trial Tuesday. “He was complimentary. He was nice.”

That day she also became his prisoner and within a few months she was in Gwinnett County, one of 10 young women and teenagers smuggled from Mexico to work as prostitutes for Cortes-Meza, his brother and two nephews, according to testimony Tuesday.

According to prosecutors, Cortes-Meza was the head of the operation.

"He told them he was their padrot. Padrot is pimp," Malone said.

First he would tell the young women, like Rosalina, he was a traveling business man and he would woo them with promises of marriage. But then he would never let them go -- beating them, belittling them, berating them or threatening to harm their families in Mexico if they so much as asked to call home.

“His desire was to turn them into merchandise. He had a callous disregard for these women,” Maloney said.

Defense attorney Sandra Michaels suggested, however, that the six women and four teenagers endured the abuse and the prostitution so they could stay in the United States.

She said the case was a federal matter only because "the Department of Homeland Security is involved... The real issue is were these women doing anything they were not planning to do?” Michaels said in her opening statement. “Were they victims … so they can stay?”

Maloney said Rosalina, now 26, and the other women would be shuttled from man-to-man and house-to-house six nights a week, collecting $30 from each encounter that was split between a driver and the Cortes-Meza men, Maloney said. The women would get to keep tips, if they got any, she said.

Cortes-Meza, a 36-year-old Mexican national, was indicted in 2008 on 31 counts, including human trafficking. He said just a few yards away from Rosalina in court Tuesday, listening to the testimony with the help of an interpreter.

His brother, Juan, and nephews Raul and Francisco and drivers Edison Wagner Rosa Tort and Otto Jaime Larios Perez  have pleaded guilty to charges and are already in prison.

Speaking through an interpreter, Rosalina described the months she was locked up in Cortes-Meza’s home in Talaxcala, five hours from her family’s home. Rosalina testified that she was limited to the house or a walled courtyard unless she was with one of the Cortes-Mezas. She testified that he allowed her to call her parents twice but he listened in on the conversation.

“In the beginning he treated me well but then he started beating me,” Rosalina testified. “He said he was going to marry me in three months, when he gathered the money. But it never happened.”

Rosalina said Cortes-Meza and the others flew to a town on the U.S.-Mexican border in April 2007 and they walked into Arizona.

“I was scared,” she said.

They made it to Phoenix where a “coyote” was waiting to put them on a bus to Georgia.

“You’ll learn [as the trial continues] the prostitution business going on in Georgia is a brutal one,” the prosecutor said.

Once the women were in Gwinnett, Maloney said, drivers “would take them to apartments where multiple men lived. They would remove their pants and their underwear… and have sex with each man [at the apartment] and the driver would take them to more apartments,” Maloney said. “They would have sex with 10 to 40 men a night, six days a week.

“They lived in an atmosphere of violence,” Maloney said, “… and [Cortes-Meza would] still make promises of love and marriage.”

The trial continues Wednesday.