Monday, November 12, 2012

Honduran National Sentenced for Hostage-Taking and Alien-Harboring

A Honduran national was sentenced Monday, November 5, 2012, to 35 years in federal prison following multiple convictions in a hostage-taking and alien-harboring conspiracy, announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson, Southern District of Texas. The investigation was conducted by the Houston Police Department (HPD), and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Cesar Avila, 38, was sentenced Nov. 5 to 420 months in prison and ordered him to pay a $1,000 special assessment fee by U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal. Avila was convicted of hostage-taking conspiracy, four counts of hostage-taking, using a firearm during a crime of violence, and four counts of aiding and abetting the harboring of illegal aliens. Avila was convicted by a jury following a three day jury trial that concluded June 6.

Additional testimony was presented by one of two female victims who Avila sexually assaulted. She provided graphic testimony about how she was abused, and how that abuse has affected her. In handing down the sentence, Judge Rosenthal noted that Avila's statement that he had himself been a victim of smugglers was "chilling" in light of the evidence presented at trial. As an illegal alien, Avila is expected to face deportation proceedings after he completes his 35-year prison sentence.

Trial testimony showed that on Aug. 19, 2011, the Houston Emergency Center received a 911 call from a subject who spoke only Spanish. The victim advised he was being held against his will at a house in Houston by alien smugglers who had been hired to smuggle him to an unspecified location in the United States. He claimed Avila was armed with a handgun and had threatened them with death, and they were in fear of their lives.

HPD officers eventually located the residence on the 100 block of Jamaica Street in Houston. The location had no windows and the French doors on the north side of the residence had the glass panes covered with aluminum foil. Once inside the location, several people, who were later identified as hostages, began pointing to Avila as the hostage-taker and smuggler. Officers also discovered a semi-automatic handgun and a ledger detailing payments by the smuggling organization under the mattress where Avila was sitting.

Several of the aliens who were held hostage also identified Carlos Martinez-Aguilar, 44, an illegal alien from Mexico. They stated that Martinez-Aguilar came into the building where they were being held and drank beer with Avila in the hours prior to law enforcement arriving. They also stated that Martinez-Aguilar asked about the status of payments of smuggling fees. The victims indicated Martinez-Aguilar was not involved in abuse or threats, and he had provided them food and blankets. Officers discovered Martinez-Aguilar had been living in the larger house in front of the building where the aliens were housed.

One of the victims advised officers he had been in the Houston area for about eight days, and had been moved from house to house in the Houston area with five other aliens. He admitted he was in the country illegally and that he had paid smugglers $5,000 to smuggle him into the United States. He identified Avila as the subject who was holding him. He stated that Avila was constantly armed with the handgun, and had threatened to kill him if he tried to escape. Further testimony revealed that the smugglers were threatening to kill him if his family did not pay an additional $5,000.

The mother of one of the victims testified at trial that she and her family had been contacted by smugglers demanding more money and threatening her son's life, as well as the life of her family if the additional money was not paid. She was so frightened she contacted police who conducted surveillance to protect them. Her daughter also testified that the family raised money by borrowing it from friends, and they sent as much money as they could via wire transfer to smugglers in Mexico.

Avila will remain in custody pending transfer to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.

Martinez-Aguilar was previously sentenced to 36 months in prison after previously pleading guilty to one count of harboring illegal aliens.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Julie Searle and Douglas Davis, Southern District of Texas, prosecuted the case.

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