September 7, 2008

Investigators try to shut down Houston sex trade

The Associated Press

HOUSTON -- A cantina sex trade continues to flourish in Houston despite efforts by officials to shut it down and an indictment of one of its leaders, according to a newspaper investigation.

Human traffickers and prostitution operators remain operating in dimly lit cantinas with secret doors and hidden gates as a result of resilient and lucrative organized crime networks, the Houston Chronicle reported Sunday.

Court documents and interviews with authorities reveal that the cantinas have persisted with a franchise-like ability to persist and prosper. The sex trade continues despite the indictment of Gerardo Salazar, an alleged organizer who called himself "The Rooster."

Authorities say Salazar ran his operation until he fled to Mexico after being indicted in 2005 by a federal grand jury as a leader of an international human trafficking ring.

Two of Salazar's associates, David Salazar, a U.S. citizen of no relation to Gerardo, and David Salazar's mother, Gregoria Salgado Vazquez, an illegal immigrant, now face felony charges of kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault of a child in Harris County.

A message left by The Associated Press with attorneys for the two on Sunday was not immediately returned.

Until last year, David Salazar owned one of the bars Gerardo Salazar allegedly did business, according to court records.

Investigators said women refused to testify against David Salazar or his mother when they tried to shut down the bar in 2005. An undercover police operation showed the mirror in the women's bathroom doubled as a door that led to a fenced backyard where clients from the bar would meet the women and go to an outer building for a paid rendevouz arranged by the bartender, according to records, crime scene photos and interviews with Sgt. Michael Barnett of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

David Salazar is accused of selling a 16-year-old sex slave at the bar, according to court docments.

The girl rescued earlier this year told authorities that she was lured from her hometown in Mexico by David Salazar after he made promises of love and offered an escape from extreme poverty.

She was illegally brought across the border in January and once brought to Jacinto City, in the Houston area, she was locked up in David Salazar's mother's house and forced to sell herself five to six nights a week in his cantina, the girl told police.

"When she refused, they would lock her up in a room and wouldn't feed her for days," said Jacinto City Detective B.J. Silva.

The girl could not escape because the home's yard was fenced and guarded by pit bulls and a chow. The home's windows were barred, and the storage room where the girl slept was padlocked.

Police found her after she called 911 in March when a cantina customer gave her a cell phone and showed her how to contact authorities, Silva said.

She was found after two house-to-house searches since she didn't know the address of the home where she was being held.

The bar remains open under new ownership.

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