REGION: Trial begins in North County sex trafficking case

Opening day takes an unexpected turn for prosecutors

The trial of a Mexican man who allegedly headed a North County prostitution ring took an unexpected turn Tuesday when a witness for the prosecution said she lied to investigators.

Federal prosecutors say Adrian Zitlalpopoca-Hernandez forced two women into a life of prostitution in Mexico and later brought them to work for him in Vista.

Defense attorneys said in the opening day of the trial Tuesday that Zitlalpopoca suggested that the women work as prostitutes but did not force them into it.

One of the alleged prostitutes, Florencia Calixto-Velazco told the jury she had lied about details of her relationship with the man. She said she had earlier told federal investigators that, while living in Mexico, Zitlalpopoca had asked her not to talk to anyone or leave their home.

On Tuesday, she changed her story. Calixto said she loved Zitlaltpopoca and that she did not want to see him go to jail.

“I lied,” she said.

In an emotional outburst, she later added that she was sorry.

“Please, I don’t want to talk about that,” she said. “I’m tired. All I want to say is that I was with him willingly.”

North County has gained notoriety in recent years as a hub of international prostitution rings, several of which have been found operating in the region’s migrant camps in rural canyons and fields.

In 2003, a Mexican man linked to a suspected prostitution ring operating at migrant worker camps pleaded guilty to federal charges of smuggling and harboring women who worked as prostitutes in North County.

That investigation stemmed from a 2002 accident in which three women drowned as they attempted to drive across a rain-swollen river to reach a migrant camp in Carlsbad.

In April, a federal grand jury indicted Zitlalpopoca on 11 counts related to sneaking women into the country and using them as prostitutes, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego.

Among the charges he faces is an accusation that he engaged in smuggling by force, fraud or coercion, which carries a minimum sentence of 15 years.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher P. Tenorio said in his opening statement Tuesday that Zitlalpopoca had taken advantage of the women to profit from their work as prostitutes.

“Adrian Zitlalpopoca manipulated vulnerable persons for money,” Tenorio said.

Zitlalpopoca met Calixto at a bus station in Oaxaca, Mexico, when she was 17 years old, according to federal prosecutors. Zitlalpopoca, who is 10 years older than Calixto, took her with him and “systematically” forced her into prostitution, according to prosecutors.

Norma Aguilar, a defense attorney, said Zitlalpopoca may have introduced the idea of becoming a prostitute but he did not force them to work. For Calixto, prostitution may have been a way out of poverty, Aguilar said.

“She grew up extremely poor. She didn’t get to go beyond elementary school. She was a maquiladora worker as a teen. She was desperate to leave that life,” Aguilar said. “He asked her to be a prostitute, and she agreed.”

Zitlalpopoca, Calixto and another alleged prostitute, Anabel de la Cruz-Ramirez, were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on Nov. 20, 2008.

Sheriff’s deputies, who were conducting a joint surveillance operation with federal agents, stopped the vehicle that the three people were in. They were arrested in a rural area of Valley Center known as Couser Canyon, a place police say is often used by sex traffickers to set up makeshift prostitution camps.

In November, two men accused of helping to run the alleged prostitution ring. The men, Eduardo Aguila-Tecuapacho and Carlos Tzompantzi-Serrano, said that they were guilty of harboring illegal immigrants for the purposes of prostitution.

Each man faces up to 10 years in prison. They are expected to be sentenced in April.



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