The social architecture of a sex trafficking case

Por en English 02/14/13 7:10am
A view from the basement door (Photo by Sam Vega/Hoy)

On Nov. 22, 2010 Chicago Police broke up a sex trafficking operation on the west side of the city, where grown women and teenage girls were sold. This is a look at how a brothel sprung up in Little Village

CHICAGO, IL – Before police swarmed the basement, herding three crying women into a living room, before the building was painted as a “house of ill fame” by the city of Chicago, before the house became a place where men in their work uniforms came to fulfill their “VIP fantasies,” it was a simple family home.

Braulio Hurtado bought the property at 3114 S. Millard in May 1991 with his wife, Maria, and a bachelor relative. The couple have owned the building since. It is a small two-story house plopped next to an alley and across the street from an empty parking lot.

City crime statistics show that the block has relatively little crime and is amongst the safer beats in the city. Jessica Saldaña, who lives on the block with her husband and two pitbulls, said it’s a quiet community even though Los Globos dance hall is within earshot.

“Es tranquilo,” Saldaña said.It’s calm.

By the time Rubicela Montero, then 38, moved into the Hurtados’ home, renting the basement for $650 a month in February 2010, she was an experienced pimp who’d set up several brothels in Little Village.

Montero moved around the community, leaving one property after the owner sold the house and another following a financial dispute with the landlord. Then there was a building on the south end of Little Village, near 31st and Springfield, which she fled after a “nosey neighbor” noticed unusual foot traffic at Montero’s dwelling.

“Oiga, como tiene de visitantes?” the neighbor asked. “Tienes muchos amigos.”

It was, on the surface, friendly, what some might call diplomatic: Hey, you have a lot of visitors. You must have a lot of friends.

Montero understood the inquiry as a warning to search out a new location and ended up at the Hurtados’ property.

As part of her profession, Montero adopted a false identity – “Sandra,” she called herself – and began promoting her business.

Shrewd and resourceful, Montero placed ads in Hoy, the Tribune Co’s Spanish daily in Chicago, and handed out “VIP” business cards offering $10 off “massages.”

The next door neighbor, a man we’ll call “Hector,” said he was grilling carne asada in the backyard one day when she invited him over for a massage.

Hector declined, but didn’t suspect there was prostitution going on next door. There was nothing unusual, he said, about the men who pulled up throughout the day in their work uniforms and left half an hour later.

“Llegaban bien, se miraban bien, nunca se vio nada, que salieran tomando,” Hector said. “Todo se miraba bien, normal.”

The men looked fine. They didn’t come out drinking. Everything seemed normal.

The homeowners didn’t suspect anything, either.

But a year after the police busted Montero’s sex trafficking ring, Chicago sued the Hurtados over the brothel.

Attorneys for the city requested that the court find that the Hurtados “permitted illegal activity” at their property, that their home is a “public nuisance,” and that they were guilty of numerous building code violations.

“No quiero acordarme de esos problemas que nos dejo esa mujer,” said Maria Hurtado. I don’t want to remember the problems that women left us.

Roderick Drew, director of public affairs for the city’s law department, said there’s been “satisfactory progress” by the homeowners on the housing violations. At a court hearing last month, the Hurtados agreed to pay a $1,500 fine, stayed for six months. If they pay it before the allotted time, they’ll pay a lesser sum.

Maria pleaded ignorance when asked how this could happen in her property, explaining that homeowners can’t know everything about their renters’ conduct.

“Uno renta y no vuelve con ellos,” Hurtado said. “Solo para poner (veneno) para las ratas.”

You rent out an apartment and you don’t return to it, only to set mouse traps.

Rubicela Montero, the madam from Mango St.

The madam from Mango St.

A dark, squat woman with long black hair flowing past her shoulders, Rubicela Montero resembled an ordinary middle-aged Mexican woman.

“She looked like somebody who could’ve lived next door to any of us,” said Lou Longhitano, the assistant state’s attorney who approved seven felony charges against the madam, including involuntary sexual servitude of a minor.

In addition to running an underground criminal enterprise, Montero lived on the margins of society. An illegal immigrant from Mexico, Montero lived on Mango Street, where she left another landlord with a different set of problems.

The property owner at her last address, who asked not to be identified due to safety concerns, said Montero’s family had people moving “in and out” and sleeping in the garage.

“Who’s coming and going, I cannot see them,” the property owner explained. “Neither me nor my parents live there, either. It’s a rental property.”

Montero did have a family in this country. A neighbor recalled Montero being dropped off at the brothel in the morning by her husband, Renato Venegas, in a green GMC truck (he was later charged with harassing one of the prostitutes).

She also had a beloved son, Isair, who played an important role in the family business.

Montero climbed her way up the hierarchy of sex work from the bottom: she entered the sex trade by selling her body after answering an ad in Hoy.

Doing massages at a brothel run by a man she described as a “homosexual,” Montero made $60 to $70 for every john she serviced. Montero realized how much the pimp was pocketing and opened a massage parlor of her own.

“She’s in charge,” one of Montero’s victims later told police. “She’s the house.”

Day to day, Montero did laundry, bought sanitizers, lubricants and condoms, and kept the girls productive. (She would create homemade plugs out of cotton so the girls could work while menstruating.)

There was little doubt what was expected of Montero’s girls.

One day, a violent john manhandled “Jessica” and demanded unprotected sex. When he returned for a second visit, Jessica left the room and told la señora she did not want to service the client.

“Dinero [es] dinero,” Montero responded, sending the girl back to the room, according to Jessica’s later account to police. Money is money.

Isair Venegas, convicted of pandering (Chicago Police)

A godsend

On Sunday mornings, when Rubicela Montero went to church, she would leave her teenage son Isair at the brothel to watch the door.

A trim young man, short with neat hair and olive skin, Isair was friends with a 16-year old girl we’ll call “Erika,” who was studying at Roberto Clemente Community Academy. Montero met Erika through Isair and hired her into prostitution.

To Montero, Erika must have seemed a godsend: She had several regular customers who requested “really young girls,” but could not meet their demand.

With Erika, however, Montero found a child whose youth she could exploit. Seeing the business opportunity, Montero marketed Erika via text message to johns as 16.

That, and Erika’s relationship with the son, Isair, is how law enforcement could prove that Montero knew the girl was 16.

Eager to make a buck, Montero would drive out to the girl’s high school and drive her back to the brothel, where Erika would sometimes wear her school uniform.

Montero later rationalized the prostituting of this young girl by claiming that she’d been “doing massages” before working at the brothel on 31st and Millard, a claim Lou Longhitano disputes.

During an interview with police, the madam was asked how she met Erika. Montero burst into tears immediately.

Montero didn’t want her son to get in trouble.

Her attorney, Paul Fuentes, said she became less concerned for herself and more for the son as time passed.

Montero pled guilty to involuntary sexual servitude of a minor in November 2011, and received an 8-year sentence. She’s currently being held at Lincoln Correctional Center.

Isair was also charged, with pandering, and pled guilty to the offense. He was sentenced to two years probation.

“If it was not for this son, that victim would’ve never met the defendant,” said Longhitano.

Because Isair lacked immigration papers, like his mother, he was picked up by ICE. Attorneys involved with this case couldn’t confirm that he was deported, but Fuentes said that was his understanding.

That’s backed up by a court filing submitted by Isair’s probation officer.

“Venegas is required to maintain contact with his [probation] officer,” according to public records. “He has not made contact since December 6, 2011. Persons at his address of record stated he had been deported to Mexico.”

The father, Renato Venegas, has disappeared. Fuentes believes he might have returned to Mexico to follow his son.

Two years after the bust on Millard, what jumps out about this case to Longhitano  was what he characterizes as Montero’s “blatant disregard for the wellness of this child,” Erika.

In 2010, Rubicela Montero ran a brothel out of this Little Village home (Photo by Sam Vega/Hoy)

In desperate need of money

“Maria” figured Rubicela Montero worked at a hotel or a factory, she was washing so many clothes and towels at the Laundromat. So she approached Montero and asked for work.

A mother of four children, one of whom was disabled, Maria had recently lost her job and desperately needed money. Montero offered the undocumented woman $80 a day to clean houses and give massages.

When Maria arrived for work, there were no houses to clean.

The first time a man asked for sex, Maria said no and stepped out to talk with Montero, who ignored the complaint and said she’d already charged the guy.

If Maria didn’t get back in there, Montero threatened to “have her deported.”

Human trafficking experts say it isn’t unusual for people to be brought into the sex trade under false pretenses, with their vulnerabilities exploited.

Montero admitted to police that she says “crazy things” and has a bad temper.

“Both of the adult victims had their children threatened,” said Longhitano. “She knew where they lived.”

Another woman working at the brothel, a married mother of 2, “Jessica,” said Montero forced her into threesomes.

Whenever Jessica resisted the madam’s demands, Montero said she not only knew where she lived, but also where her children went to school, and suggested she “might not be found in the morning.”

Jessica overheard Montero talk about beating up a girl who quit at a nail salon. She also heard Montero say that she had a friend who would put grenades in the girls’ cars and houses.

Montero did not make idle threats.

Maria quit the business after three months to work at a steel factory, but had to leave her home after Montero kept calling and banging on the door.

Montero tried to scare Maria by saying she’d be “found dead in an alley” if she didn’t return.

Unfortunately, Maria couldn’t handle working at the steel company – the extreme heat caused her health problems.

One day, Maria ran into Montero while walking home from the grocery store, and Montero followed Maria home.

The madam renewed her harassment until Maria returned to the life.

Back at the house, Maria endured months of abuse until she couldn’t stand it anymore.

Maria called the Chicago Police Department and was routed to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline.

She left a message saying there were immigrants and children being trafficked in Chicago, and gave more information about the brothel.

By calling the hotline, Maria became one of 471 victims who reported their own sexual exploitation in 2010, a number that keeps growing each year as more awareness is raised on the issue.

“It is more common for us to get a tip from a neighbor/community member/service provider,” explained Megan Fowler, communications director at the Polaris Project, a leading non-profit dedicated to combating human trafficking. “But we have been seeing a significant increase in victims calling on their own behalf.”

Maria did not escape the brothel until Chicago policeman Franklin Paz Jr. walked into the house on 31st and Millard, posing as a john.

He was investigating the tip.

After Paz requested the company of a girl he thought looked particularly young and negotiated an encounter, he radioed for backup and shut the operation down.

At the police station, Montero kept threatening the girls, yelling for them to stay silent.

The State’s Attorney’s Office wouldn’t say much about the victims’ fate since the bust. One of the women was given assistance in filing for a T-Visa, which offers protection to trafficking victims.

Many prostitutes do not escape the life with their lives. All the women in this case did, which the state’s attorney notes is a positive outcome.

“The fact that they’re all alive and well is a start,” Longhitano said. “They were put at tremendous risk.”

Lynne Johnson, policy and advocacy director at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, in her office on the North Side Wednesday. Johnson believes the wider community sometimes enables sexual expliotation by willingly ignoring signs around brothels.

Discreet business

“It’s a relatively discreet business,” explained Lou Longhitano, when asked how a brothel can spring up unnoticed.

Although the next door neighbor saw men arrive, the brothel on 31st and Millard in Little Village was not brought down by neighbors or street cops. It took a victim reporting herself to find help.

Montero’s attorney grew up in Pilsen and said he knows “exactly why” a brothel can go undetected for so long in Latino neighborhoods.

“First of all, they’re very transient areas,” Paul Fuentes said. “People move in for a little while, then they move out.”

With Hispanics, who tend to have “large extended families,” it’s not unusual to see numerous visitors. Neighbors might think that the resident has a lot of uncles.

Perhaps if they are undocumented, they don’t want to get involved with the authorities.

“Even though they’re poor neighborhoods,” Fuentes added, “a lot of people still work there. A lot of them aren’t home when it’s daylight out, so they don’t know what’s going on [in their own community].”

Besides, Fuentes said, there’s a lot of foot traffic in Little Village, especially around 26th Street. More people coming and going wouldn’t necessarily catch anyone’s attention.

Other experts think there isn’t enough awareness of sex trafficking in the United States, so many people don’t know what to look for.

“People are still learning about what human trafficking is,” said Shelby French, executive director of the International Organization for Adolescents, “and actually [don’t] believe it can happen in your neighborhood next door to you.”

Also, there is a widespread perception that prostitution is a choice and “victimless crime.”

But in interviews with law enforcement experts and non-profit leaders, it’s clear that there are other elements at play when these brothels spring up.

“For many of the issues faced by our communities, people look the other way,” said French. “Sometimes we’re not as engaged with our neighborhoods as we should be.”

That’s echoed by other nonprofit leaders and law enforcement officers.

“The larger community plays a role in encouraging and supporting sexual exploitation,” said Lynne Johnson, policy and advocacy director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.  “I think what we see at indoor venues like truck stops, massage parlors, strip clubs, or brothels inside homes is that the community-at-large does notice high levels of traffic, mostly from men, going in and out of businesses. By looking the other way, they are tacitly allowing the sex trade to thrive.”

A 15-year law enforcement veteran, Sgt. Traci Walker, of the Chicago Police Department, made a point of saying that she’s trained to notice criminal activity, while civilians are not, but said people do notice unusual activity in their community.

“They might not identify it as sex trafficking but I’m sure they notice that there’s some sort of illegal activity taking place and …turn a blind eye.”

“Some (figure), ‘It’s not affecting me. I’ll mind my own business.”

Resources

LOCAL: Salvation Army STOP-IT initiative against human trafficking, 877-606-3158, http://sa-stopit.org

NATIONAL: National Human Trafficking Resource Center, 1-888-3737-888