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June 14th, 2006 Angela Valdez | News Stories
 

Captive Labor

Part one of two on Oregon's first human-trafficking prosecution.

     
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Ramon Lopez-Montanez is the target of Oregon's first federal prosecution on charges of human trafficking.
Mayra Martina Hernandez-Vargas began her odyssey from urban Mexico to rural Oregon five years ago, at age 15.

One day in February 2001, a man walked into the Guadalajara coffee shop where she worked and invited her to a party. Hernandez-Vargas got permission from her grandmother and climbed into the man's car.

According to a recent FBI affidavit, the man, Ramon Lopez-Montanez, then drove his young passenger to a brothel guarded by another man armed with a handgun. Several teenage girls were being held inside, forced to yield to paying customers and the four Lopez-Montanez brothers who profited from the operation. The brothers raped and beat Hernandez-Vargas, but never forced her into prostitution, according to the affidavit.

She stayed in their custody for five years, traveling to Los Angeles, Northern California and, finally, the small Oregon town of Otis, where she says she tended to Lopez-Montanez's marijuana growing operation.

Ramon Lopez-Montanez, 39, now faces charges of forced labor, manufacturing marijuana and possessing a false government document, in what is Oregon's first human-trafficking prosecution.

The case bolsters evidence that the local trade in humans documented by WW last year (see "Esclavitud en Portland," Dec. 7, 2005) is increasingly as entwined with the drug trade as with prostitution, which is more often associated with forced labor.

"Drug traffickers are innovative," says Multnomah County Sheriff's Deputy Dan Rendon, who oversees a local task force on human trafficking.

Hernandez-Vargas told the FBI she spent a year in the brothel in Guadalajara. She watched other girls get raped, she said, and witnessed the murder of a girl named Monica. Lopez-Montanez threatened to kill Hernandez-Vargas' brothers and mother, she said, if she attempted to flee.

In February 2002, one of Ramon's brothers, Cesar, took Hernandez-Vargas on a commercial flight to Tijuana, where they met a couple who drove Hernandez-Vargas over the border.

She stayed locked in a room in a house near Los Angeles for three days before a third Lopez-Montanez brother, Sergio, arrived and drove her to a home near Mount Shasta in Northern California. There she tended to a 100-plant marijuana growing operation. Again, threats were made against her family.

Three months later, Sergio returned with the first brother, Ramon, according to the affidavit, who said she "was now his property," and reminded her not to forget what she had seen in Mexico. In mid-May, the threesome packed up and drove north, coming to rest at a prefab home on North Boulder Creek Road in Otis, an unincorporated town near Lincoln City.

Ramon told Hernandez-Vargas that she would stay in the house and tend to the 80 plants in three bedrooms, which yielded six pounds of marijuana every 90 days.

She wrote checks for the rent, the water bill and the $300-a-month power bill. She learned how to diminish the smell of growing weed, and was eventually entrusted with a truck she used to buy groceries. If anyone asked, she was instructed to say Lopez-Montanez was her husband, and that his name was Sebastian Contreras.

Over the next three years, Hernandez-Vargas grew close enough to her captor and his brothers to learn about other Oregon locations where they grew and sold marijuana, and to meet other women entangled with the operation, including Lopez-Montanez's American wife.

Hernandez-Vargas told the FBI that she didn't flee because she feared her family would be harmed or she would be deported. She said she was beaten and even stabbed, claims supported by a later examination that found knife wounds on her body.

Hernandez-Vargas, who spoke little English and kept to herself, rarely captured neighbors' attention. Martha Cooksey, who lived down the street, said Hernandez-Vargas never betrayed a hint of fear when Cooksey had to chase her stepmother's dog onto the property where Hernandez-Vargas lived. Cooksey described her as helpful, polite and a "very pleasant young woman."

It seems likely that Hernandez-Vargas would have remained unnoticed in Otis indefinitely had it not been for a curious neighbor.

The neighbor, whom the FBI does not identify, began wondering about the young woman across the street, who had no job or family. He suspected she "was in effect being held prisoner" and befriended her enough to coax the story out. He called the FBI in November 2005.

Rendon, who assisted with the resulting investigation, says Hernandez-Vargas was brave to talk to the FBI.

"What she did, she's taken her life into her hands," he says. "She's not out of danger yet, not by a long shot."


Next week: Hernandez-Vargas escapes; FBI agents use global positioning systems and sparkling water to track Lopez-Montanez, a medium-fry trafficker who doesn't fit the bill of your typical Mexican drug lord; and the feds arrest another undocumented Mexican woman who says she loved Lopez-Montanez and was not a victim.
 
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