Delia was 13 when she started dating Francisco Melendez-Perez, a 16-year-old she met in a park in Mexico. She thought that he was handsome and nice, and that he would bring stability and love to her life.
Instead, Delia told a federal judge in Brooklyn on Thursday, Mr. Melendez-Perez made her a victim of his family’s dark trade: sex trafficking. He raped her, smuggled her over the border and from a home base in Queens forced her to have sex with 30 to 50 men a day. He beat her so severely that she lost use of her jaw, Delia, who is now 25, told the court, as her former boyfriend faced sentencing on 10 counts including sex trafficking of children, money laundering and racketeering.
“Francisco did everything he could to make sure he could sell me for sex, no matter what,” said Delia, who had also testified — using just her first name — at Mr. Melendez-Perez’s trial in 2020. “All he wanted was for me to make money for him.”
Mr. Melendez-Perez, 27, was one of two men sentenced Thursday for their roles in a family-run sex-trafficking network that prosecutors said brought vulnerable teenage girls from central Mexico to Queens.
The case is one of several in recent years that illustrate the persistent problem of human trafficking out of Mexico and into New York City, particularly into Queens. In December, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn charged six people in connection with a different sex-trafficking scheme that brought women and girls from Mexico to Queens.
“Through false promises of a better life, the defendants ensnared young, vulnerable victims in a sordid world of sex-trafficking and used violence and cruel threats to force them into prostitution,” Breon S. Peace, U.S. attorney for New York’s Eastern District, said Thursday.
Judge Allyne R. Ross sentenced Mr. Melendez-Perez to 25 years in prison, citing the “brutal beatings and psychological torture” he inflicted on Delia, and “the very intimacy” of the relationship he exploited.
In a subsequent hearing, Judge Ross sentenced a relative of Mr. Melendez-Perez, Abel Romero-Melendez, to 20 years. Three other men — older relatives of Mr. Melendez-Perez whom prosecutors described as ringleaders — received sentences of nearly 40 years. All five men were convicted in March 2020 on sex-trafficking and related charges.
Mr. Melendez-Perez’s court-appointed lawyer, Michael H. Gold, told the court that his client was born into a “generational business,” in a town known for the sex trade. “This was his inheritance,” Mr. Gold said. “He grew up in it. He was trained to do it.”
What prosecutors called the Melendez-Rojas Organization is based in Tenancingo, a town in Mexico that has become notorious for sex trafficking, according to lawyers involved in the case. A lawyer for Delia said after the sentencing that her client had been the victim of “an extremely well-established practice” of family-run networks whose members seduce, manipulate and traffic girls for sexual abuse.
“It is a family enterprise,” said the lawyer, Lori Cohen. “It is really built into the economic fabric of this town.” The pipeline to Queens was also well-established, she said.
In court, Mr. Gold referred to a “joint state of victimhood,” noting that Mr. Melendez-Perez was only 16 years old when he was pushed into the business by his uncles.
Through a translator, Mr. Melendez-Perez told the judge that he had been immature and ignorant, and that he had been “used” by his older family members. “I had no idea of the magnitude of what I was involved in,” he said. After he and Delia “separated,” he said, he stopped working as a trafficker.
Delia then rose from a courtroom bench to address the court. In a voice that at times quavered, she described her upbringing in poverty and violence, how Mr. Melendez-Perez had won her over with promises of love and marriage, and the shame and pain she endured for four and a half years while she was forced to work as a prostitute. She saw up to 50 men a day, asking $35 for each encounter, in New York and surrounding states.
When she was 17 years old, Delia said, she went to the police — her lawyer said she spoke with an officer in Queens. Without looking across the courtroom at her former boyfriend, she corrected Mr. Melendez-Perez’s statement: “We never separated, because I escaped.”
Judge Ross acknowledge the influence of Mr. Melendez-Perez’s older family members but said he was “not a child” when he abused Delia.
The government had sought 35-year prison terms for Mr. Melendez-Perez and for Mr. Romero-Melendez, whose lawyer also cited the backdrop of poverty and violence in Mexico as context for his client’s acts.