Trial begins for Mexican in sex trafficking case

A Mexican man went on trial Tuesday on federal charges of masterminding a sex trafficking scheme by luring young women to the Atlanta area with the false promises of better lives, good jobs and even romance.

Amador Cortes-Meza and several of his relatives were charged with plotting to bring at least nine victims from Mexico to the Atlanta area between spring 2006 and June 2008. Cortes-Meza's brother Juan and two nephews have already been sentenced to years behind bars on similar charges. But Cortes-Meza's case went to trial.

Prosecutors said the Cortes-Meza targeted unsophisticated and uneducated women and then paid smugglers to bring them across the border illegally. When the women arrived, Cortes-Meza would tell them they had to work as prostitutes indefinitely to repay the transportation costs, according to the court records.

In one case, prosecutors say he seduced one woman to travel to the U.S. with the promise of being his live-in girlfriend, then threatened to hit her when she refused to work as a prostitute. Authorities said he threatened to call another woman's family and inform them she was working as a prostitute if she didn't comply.

"He treated these women like merchandise, like goods for sale, something he could just import into Georgia to fatten his wallet," said Karima Maloney, a federal prosecutor, who said he kept them in houses in Atlanta's northeast suburbs and paid drivers to shuttle them to different customers.

The women were identified only by their initials in court papers and by their first names in court. The Associated Press does not typically identify victims of sexual assault.

Defense attorney Sandra Michaels, though, told the jury the government cannot establish that her client forced the women into prostitution, which is key to proving federal sex trafficking charges. She said the women willingly worked with her client, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

"The real issue is whether these women did do anything they were not already planning to do," she said. "Did they really go through all of what it takes to cross the border illegally and not know what they were coming here for?"