Four people pleaded guilty Thursday for participating in a sex-trafficking operation in Houston that investigators said made at least $12.6 million by forcing woman and underage girls living in the U.S. illegally into prostitution.
The three men and one woman were among 13 people arrested in October after a three-year investigation into the ring, which prosecutors said operated for more than a decade and involved girls as young as 14.
Odelia Hernandez and Abel Medeles, who are U.S. citizens, along with Eduardo Guzman Gonzales and Alberto Mendez Flores, both from Mexico, each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens. The charge carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. They are scheduled to be sentenced in October.
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Prosecutors allege the operation's nearly 70-year-old ringleader, Hortencia Medeles-Arguello, owned and operated four bars in east and southeast Houston where violence was used to force the girls and women into prostitution. Authorities said the sex-trafficking operation was a family affair, as Medeles-Arguello's three daughters, brother, sister and niece also were indicted in the scheme.
Authorities allege that Medeles-Arguello and people who worked for her would charge men anywhere from $65 to $500 to have sex with the girls and women for 15 minutes in rooms located above the bars or in nearby hotels. Some of the underage girls were as young as 14.
During Thursday's hearing, the four defendants said they worked at Las Palmas II, one of the bars owned by Medeles-Arguello.
Guzman, 30, and Mendez, 25, told the judge they co-managed the bar for Medeles-Arguello and would pay her $20,000 per week from the bar's proceeds and kept the rest for themselves.
Hernandez, 45, and Medeles, 64, said their jobs included warning workers at the bar whenever police would show up.
Medeles-Arguello and the eight remaining defendants arrested in the case are set to go to trial Sept. 8. One more suspect is still at large.