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‘I Had to Escape or I Would Die’: Sex-Trafficking Survivor on Facing Her Perpetrator in Court

Delia keeps a framed hand-drawn picture beside her bed to remind herself that she got away. “You escaped. You are safe,” it says, in English and Spanish. At 25, Delia has been free from the sex trade for about eight years now, but she told a Brooklyn courtroom that sometimes she still wakes up panicked from nightmares that she’s being sold to men to be raped. In an interview with Rolling Stone, she shared how she’s been building a life for herself since then. 

Having already testified — using her first name only — in the March 2020 trial of an international sex-trafficking organization, Delia gave a victim impact statement at the Thursday sentencing of the man who had forced her to leave Mexico and enter the sex trade in New York at age 14. During her trial testimony two years ago, she had a Spanish translator present to help her answer questions. For her statement on Thursday, she stood alone and confidently addressed her trafficker in English, her third language after the Mayan dialect she was raised speaking and Spanish. “Francisco, I hope that you go to hell because that is where you put me,” she said. “While that is in God’s hands, I ask the court to give Francisco Melendez-Perez the harshest sentence possible for what he did to me and to the other victims.”

Melendez-Perez is one of five men who was convicted in 2020 as part of a family-run sex-trafficking ring. Between 2006 and 2017, the government claimed, the group smuggled young women and girls into the U.S. from Mexico and forced them into sex work in New York, Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware. The men involved had lured women and girls into romantic relationships with promises of love, marriage, and financial security, then used violence and threats to keep them from escaping the coerced sex work.

The people being trafficked were forced to have sex with dozens of men a day, which the abusers tallied by doling out condoms and counting the number that remained unused at the end of the day. Delia was one of six victims who testified about being trafficked by the defendants. She spoke at two other sentencings last week, as well. “I wanted to face my traffickers,” Delia tells Rolling Stone. “And at the same time I wanted for other victims to be able to find justice. I hope they can talk to law enforcement, as I did, and that [the police] listen to them like the agents that were involved in my case.”

The defendants faced a maximum sentence of life in prison for charges of sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, sex trafficking of minors, interstate prostitution, alien smuggling, and money laundering conspiracy. Last week, after a long pandemic-driven delay, Judge Allyne Ross sentenced three of Melendez-Perez’ uncles — Jose Miguel Melendez-Rojas, Jose Osvaldo Melendez-Rojas, and Rosalio Melendez-Rojas — to over 39 years in prison. Also on Thursday, Ross sentenced Abel Romero-Melendez, Melendez-Perez’ cousin once removed, to 20 years. 

Delia was 13, living in a small town in the Mexican state of Chiapas, going to school and working at an ice cream shop when she met Melendez-Perez, then 16, according to her trial testimony. “I thought that he was handsome and nice, and I was excited that he wanted to be my boyfriend,” she said in court on Thursday, standing behind a lectern in a fuchsia blouse and a houndstooth plaid blazer, her close-cropped hair accentuated by side-swept bangs. (“That’s new — I never had this before,” she says of her hair. “My traffickers controlled how I dressed, what food I would eat, my hair. I wanted to show my trafficker he does no longer have control of me.”) Even in thick-soled black boots, she stood less than five feet tall. She said Melendez-Perez, whom she referred to as Francisco, took advantage of her hunger — for food, which he provided when she went to live with him at his family’s house in Tenancingo, a town notorious for sex-trafficking, and for love. “He promised me a beautiful future, but it was all a lie,” she said. 

According to Delia, Melendez-Perez told her they had to go work in the U.S. for a few years to earn money. Then, he told her, they’d come back to Mexico and start a family. When they arrived in Queens, however, Melendez-Perez and his uncles forced her into sex work. 

In brutal detail, Delia recounted the violence and threats she endured. She used to bleed, she said, from having vaginal and anal sex with, at times, 30 to 50 men a day. In deciding on the amount of restitution owed to Delia, Judge Ross calculated that at $35 per purchaser, Delia had likely earned close to $1.2 million during the three-and-a-half years she was trafficked. (Half of that went to the drivers who took Delia to and from the men paying for sex. Ross said Delia was owed the estimated $588,250 that went to the traffickers, plus $53,000 in medical expenses.) “Francisco did everything he could to make sure that he could sell me for sex,” Delia said. “It didn’t matter if I was scared that I might get a sexual disease. It didn’t matter if I was panicked that a client would kill me. It didn’t matter if I was starving or exhausted. It didn’t matter that my vagina was swollen and sore because I was in pain from so many men penetrating me. All he wanted was for me to make them money.”

The note that sits by Delia’s bed.

Courtesy of Delia

If Melendez-Perez suspected Delia was pregnant, she said he would yank her by her legs off the bed and onto the floor to try to force her to have a miscarriage. He once beat her so badly she needed multiple reconstructive surgeries on her jaw. She said Melendez-Perez told her if she went outside, police would arrest and deport her, and he warned her that if she tried to leave, he would bring her 12-year-old sister to the U.S. and force her into the same fate. 

In 2014, when Delia was 17, she said that a man who bought her for sex had held a knife to her and threatened to kill her. “I knew that I had to escape or I would die in prostitution,” she said. She went to the police, despite fearing that they would arrest her. “That night marked a big change in my life,” she said. “It meant so much to me to be heard and believed.”

Delia asked the judge to deliver the harshest sentence possible. “Francisco said that he loved me, but instead he tortured me for three-and-a-half years,” she said. The prosecution requested 35 years imprisonment. 

Speaking in Spanish on his own behalf through a translator, Melendez-Perez, wearing a tan prison uniform, said it took him a long time to understand that trafficking girls and women for sex was wrong, because, he claimed, it was normalized in his world. “It hurts me to see my freedom and my youth slip through my fingers, all because I didn’t realize what was happening around me was bad,” he said, adding that when he was 16, the age he’s accused of beginning to traffic Delia, he did not grasp the gravity of his actions. “We all make mistakes. But we can have another chance.” 

Judge Ross spoke about the cruelty and callousness of Melendez-Perez actions, the deceit, trickery, and manipulation he’d used to coerce Delia into sex work, and the physical and psychological pain he’d inflicted while taking advantage of her youth, naïveté, and dependence on him. “A severe prison term is required,” Ross said. But, she added, given his young age at the time, and the fact that he was “under the tutelage” of his uncles, he would serve less time than they would.

When Ross announced 25 years, Delia shook her head and sobbed in the front row of the gallery. “I feel like he needed to be behind bars longer than that,” she says. “He broke my jaw, and I’m in terrible pain.” At the same time, she says she’s satisfied that he and his uncles will spend decades incarcerated. “That gives me a little bit of peace, knowing that they can’t hurt other girls.”

Melendez-Perez’ attorney will file an appeal on his behalf. Delia’s attorney Lori Cohen is making plans to seek legal partners in Mexico to make sure Delia gets paid the restitution money she’s owed. “There’s tremendous corruption in Mexico, so to try and enforce these legal judgments is certainly going to be challenging, but we’re in it for the long haul,” Cohen says. 

Meanwhile, Delia is looking ahead to what comes next. She’s living in the U.S. — Cohen says she can likely never return to Mexico for her safety, nor can she reveal which state she lives in now. She works at a customer service call center. “I deal with angry people,” she says, but there’s laughter in her voice. “I love my work. They treat me with respect, and everyone is sweet to me.” She’s finishing her high school studies and continuing to learn English. When she wants inspiration, she listens to Mexican music — along with Air Supply and Chicago. “The inspire me to write my romantic thoughts,” she says, still laughing. She’s discovering hobbies. She loves journaling, photography, sewing, and eating chocolate. 

Looking ahead, Delia wants to become an advocate for other trafficking survivors and to empower other victims to seek help, like she did when she walked into a police station after escaping her traffickers. “Nobody rescued me; I escaped on my own,” she says. In the immediate future, though, she’s happy just to close this chapter. “I’m excited that I’ll be able to sleep with peace and [not] have to be worried about court anymore,” she says. “There was a big weight taken away from my shoulders and my body. I’m trying to learn how to paint…I’m just excited for more opportunities.”

Victims or survivors of human trafficking can contact local law enforcement or the National Human Trafficking Hotline for resources at (888) 373-7888, or text “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733.

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