By Michelle Hunter, The Times-Picayune
Leonarda Martinez, 53, is charged with human trafficking
Authorities who raided the nondescript, single-story double at 239 Baylor Place in Kenner on Wednesday found an American flag displayed across the porch and a shockingly sordid secret in one of the bedrooms.
Leonarda Martinez, 53, is charged with human trafficking
A bordello of sorts was uncovered where resident Leonarda Martinez, 53, allegedly charged men $400 to have sex with women, according to a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office arrest report. But Martinez wasn’t booked with promoting prostitution, the standard state charge applied to those who pimp out sexual services.
Instead she was booked with human trafficking, accused of using fraud, force or coercion to provide those illicit services, the arrest report said. There are no details available about any possible victims or how they came to be involved with Martinez. But if the charge leveled against her is proven true, the women were forced to have sex against their will, part of what authorities are calling modern-day slavery.
“Imagine being raped 25 times a day, six or seven days a week. It’s one of the most savage things that can happen,” said Bobby Gaston, coordinator of the local law enforcement arm of the Louisiana Human Trafficking Task Force, the agency that investigated the case.
The federally financed task force was authorized in 2006. Members include several law enforcement agencies around the state, as well as victims’ services agencies such as Catholic Charities and the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children. But the enforcement side only recently dedicated three full-time officers to human trafficking investigations, Gaston said. Now, they’re poised to tackle any case in which a victim or victims are forced to labor against their will, be that at a construction job, in a field on a mattress.
The three-member team that probed the Kenner prostitution ring spent two months investigating the case. During Wednesday’s search at Baylor Place, they found a bedroom with two mattresses on the floor, condoms lying on a dresser and security bars on the window, the arrest report said. The team, comprised of one representative each from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Orleans Criminal Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), would not comment specifically on the case because it is still under investigation.
Martinez, who was also booked with letting her premises for prostitution, was still being held at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Gretna on Friday. Bond was set at $250,500, but immigration officials have a hold on her.
Gaston said the case marks the first sex trafficking arrest for the task force. However, they’ve already investigated a few similar suspected trafficking incidents, something that might come as a bit of a surprise to local residents.
Human trafficking is a multibillion-dollar business with about 17,500 people trafficking into the United States each year, said Temple Black, spokesman for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Trafficking involves coerced labor, according to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, whose office is also part of the task force. “It’s basically the bondage and slavery of other individuals,” Letten said.
Labor trafficking — forcing victims to work jobs in various industries including agriculture, hotel entertainment or construction — accounted for about 12 percent of the trafficking incidents reported nationally in 2007 and 2008, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Sex trafficking made up about 83 percent of the incidents and more than 90 percent of the victims were women and girls.
But not all the sex trafficking victims are foreign nationals. Many are Americans and a startling number are children between the ages of 11 and 14, according to Linda Smith, founder and president of Shared Hope International Inc., a nonprofit group dedicated to rescuing and restoring such victims.
“Nine out of 10 of them are American middle school children,” she said.
Neither Gaston nor Letten could say just how prolific trafficking is in the New Orleans area. But some cases have made it to the public eye. In May, the Orleans Criminal District Court oversaw what prosecutors believed to be the first conviction under the state’s five-year-old human trafficking statute. Ricky Darnell Womack pleaded guilty to forcing a 15-year-old runaway girl from Arkansas to work as a prostitute out of an eastern New Orleans motel.
In Pennslyvania, federal prosecutors convicted 16 men on charges of recruiting girls as young as 12 into prostitution and transporting them to sell their services in there as well as Ohio, Michigan, Texas and Louisiana. Smith, who interviewed some of the young victims, said the girls were pimped out to relief workers who came to New Orleans to help rebuild.
In October the Louisiana Federation of Teachers filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office about the California recruitment firm Universal Placement, which charged Filipino teachers $15,000 up front and a 10 percent cut of their salaries for jobs in New Orleans even though the Recovery School District paid the company $47,000 to bring in teachers.
And in December 2008, a group of 13 Mexican nationals filed a civil suit in Louisiana’s Eastern District Court alleging that the owner of Bimbo’s Best Produce Inc. in Amite forced them to pick strawberries by confiscating their passports and visas, sprayed them with pesticides, fired a shotgun over their heads and threatened them with arrest or deportation.
“No one can say with any certainly how bad the problem is in the area, but the conditions are ripe based on the migrant and transient population here post-Katrina,” Letten said.
On Going Investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Louisiana Human Trafficking Task Force