“I thought they would be like a family … protect me from things,” the girl said.
On Thursday, seven MS-13 members and associates were convicted of trafficking the girl for sex using coercion. The FBI said authorities found a child pornography video of her during the investigation. The Post is not naming the girl because she is a minor and the victim of a sex crime.
Authorities say the violent, transnational MS-13 gang has increasingly turned to sex trafficking over the past decade to generate income alongside drug trafficking. The victims are often young runaways. Under federal law, a minor cannot consent to being involved in commercial sex.
The seven people convicted — Luis Alberto Gonzales, Santos Ernesto Gutierrez Castro, Reina Elizabeth Hernandez, Jose Eliezar Molina-Veliz, Gilberto Morales, Jonathan Rafael Zelaya-Veliz and Moises Orlando Zelaya-Veliz — are facing a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of life in prison.
All stood silently as the verdict was read in court Thursday evening. U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga scheduled their sentencings for Nov. 3.
Defense attorneys had argued that the girl was under the influence of drugs or alcohol during some of the encounters, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and could not reliably identify all the men accused in connection with her trafficking.
“She was also told she could not leave the gang and if she did leave they would harm her family,” an FBI agent said in a court filing.
Speaking in Spanish through a court interpreter, the girl, who prosecutors said was trafficked from August to October 2018, testified she was beaten on two occasions and forced to have sex with customers and gang members in Maryland and Northern Virginia.
Each beating consisted of 26 blows with a baseball bat to her backside and left bruises, officials said.
“They didn’t want to stop,” the girl testified. “I just said that it hurt.”
Gang members had accused the girl of stealing before she was beaten the second time. In a message recovered by authorities, one MS-13 member in the Washington area told another in El Salvador: “Yes homie, I told her that the stealing and the video are bullshit. No more stealing. And that The Beast would take her if we saw her hanging out with those snitches again. And that her family would be first if she does not keep her mouth shut.” (Prosecutors said being “taken by the beast” means getting killed to MS-13 members.)
She was sexually abused outside the apartment that Moises Zelaya-Veliz and Molina-Veliz shared in Woodbridge, Va., and also taken to Hernandez’s apartment in Mt. Rainier, Md., where Hernandez and Gonzales charged various men $100 an hour, according to the FBI.
One witness, Orlando Alexis Salmeron Funez, who was also indicted for sex trafficking the girl and cut a deal with prosecutors to testify in court, said he believed she was 19 or 20 years old, and didn’t realize she was a girl until he saw her in the light of day, in his “five senses.” Under federal law, prosecutors were not required to prove that the defendants knew the girl was a minor, only that they had “a reasonable opportunity to observe” her.