'She's been a victim almost all her life': The story of a trafficking victim turned Idaho inmate - East Idaho News

‘She’s been a victim almost all her life’: The story of a trafficking victim turned Idaho inmate

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Disclaimer: The subject of this story has reason to fear for the safety of herself and her family. For that reason, her name has been changed, and some of the details and dates of this story have been omitted

POCATELLO — Maria Herrera escaped ongoing sexual assault as a teenager. But that was only the beginning of what would be an arduous three-decade-long journey.

In search of a better life for her and her family, Herrera took on a solo trek from Central America to the United States by way of Mexico. After multiple deportations, she made her way to Utah.

There, she became a tool for a succession of drug-trafficking “handlers” working for the Mexican mafia. She was tasked with counting and shipping money and delivering drugs to dealers.

Then, after four years of forced servitude, police officers from Utah and Idaho appeared at her front door. She thought she was finally safe, rescued from a perilous existence.

Herrera quickly found out, though, that she had not been rescued. Rather, her child was being taken away, and she was being whisked off to jail.

Following three years in prison, Herrera was scheduled for deportation. But the Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition helped her obtain a visa and find a home in the United States.

Jennifer Zielinski, the coalition’s director, called Herrera’s story “heartbreaking.”

“She was a victim,” Zielinski told EastIdahoNews.com. “She was a victim of sex trafficking, and she was used as a frontline distributor for a massive drug trafficking ring. She’s been a victim almost all her life.”

‘She really wants to tell her story’

Herrera became a rape victim in her early teens when she was attacked by a family member’s husband, who held her captive and assaulted her for several days. Unable to ensure her own safety or the safety of her family, Herrera decided that her salvation could be found in the United States.

She called that journey “another nightmare in my life.”

Every offer of help to get into the country came with a demand. She was told that if she crossed the border, she would have to work to pay off a debt as a waitress for pitiful wages. Other options were worse — working as a prostitute in a bar to pay off a debt or being filmed in pornographic movies.

Herrera’s options were slim due to her lack of immigration documents.

“I would get up at 1 am to pray,” Herrera wrote in a testimony translated by Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition case worker Monica Martinez. “I would beg my God to help me. So, I made the decision again to immigrate to the United States to try my luck again. And once again, I suffered.”

Eventually, she met a man who offered her assistance, and she began a sexual relationship with him.

Herrera spoke with EastIdahoNews.com through Martinez, her translator. She said the man offered to help her get from Mexico to Texas.

Eventually, she made her way to Utah, where she had a nephew she’d hoped could help her plant roots and start a new life to which she could invite her family. Unfortunately, Herrera discovered that her cousin had become addicted to drugs and was living on the streets.

She had nothing and no one.

Herrera then met a man who offered to help her get on her feet and find a place to live in exchange for sexual favors.

“I didn’t have another way but to accept going with him to his apartment,” she said.

Herrera initially described the relationship as passionate and intense. But most of that turned out to be a ruse.

“It was nice, but she didn’t know their techniques — she didn’t understand that world,” Martinez told EastIdahoNews.com.

The man found her in her time of need and provided her with food, clothes, shelter and compassion.

Within two months, Herrera was pregnant. And that was when everything changed. A relationship Herrera once described as one of passion became one of violence and demands.

“He took advantage of my situation,” she said. “He right away put me to work. … He told me, ‘This is what I have to do, and you’re going to do it with me.'”

‘I didn’t have a choice’

Now trapped and carrying a baby she would have to figure out how to care for, Herrera did what she was told.

“I (was) mother and father for my little one; I had to do what I did to survive and feed my (child). I had to do it,” she said.

She never received any money. Instead, her work was paid for in rent and the absolute barest of essentials. As Herrera explained, the man knew that by keeping her without money, he could keep her under his thumb. He also impressed upon her that any attempt to escape her situation would mean her death or the deaths of her family.

The man forced Herrera to deliver drugs for him.

Eventually, her handler was arrested. But all that did was force the Mexican mafia, for which he was working, to send another handler. That happened again and again, Martinez said. And to make matters worse, each new handler found new ways to diminish and demean Herrera — to rob her of more and more of her humanity.

This technique, similar to a confidence game, sees traffickers gain control of a victim by first providing for them — developing a dependency — and then exploiting them, said Zielinski. She referred to Herrera as a “pawn in a much larger scheme.” Since Herrera had nowhere else to go and no one else who could help her find independence, she was stuck at the beck and call of this string of handlers.

After four years, Herrera was given a new task — to deliver drugs to a dealer in Idaho.

As she did not have a vehicle or driver’s license, Herrera and her baby were passengers on the delivery — creating the illusion of a family vacation to veil their actual intentions. She also never personally touched the money or the drugs — she was purely a decoy. What she didn’t know at the time was that the dealer who was to receive the drugs in Idaho was a confidential police informant.

According to Martinez, the dealer had been caught selling drugs in Idaho and agreed to provide their boss for arrest in exchange for their freedom.

‘They separated me from my daughter’

An affidavit of probable cause filed at the time of Herrera’s arrest and obtained by EastIdahoNews.com states that a confidential informant made arrangements to buy 45 grams of heroin and a half-ounce — around 14 grams — of cocaine. The informant was given $2,400 for the purchase.

The exchange — $2,400 for 48.6 grams of heroin and 7.6 grams of cocaine — was made in Pocatello, the affidavit says.

“The only thing I did was go inside of the store and buy some coffee,” Herrera said, explaining that she was not part of the exchange. “Then they stopped (us) on the way to Utah, on a traffic stop, but they didn’t arrest me at that time.”

The three were allowed to return to Utah after officers did not discover anything of evidentiary value during a traffic stop.

Three days later, Utah State Police, Idaho State Police and the Bannock County Sheriff’s deputies served a search warrant on Herrera’s home.

During the search, officers once again found nothing illegal. Still, Herrera was placed under arrest. As she explained, there were never any drugs at her house, nor was there any money.

“They searched my house; they turned it upside down,” Herrera said. “What hurts me the most is that I didn’t have a dollar to my name. I didn’t have anything on me. I had only my sick child.”

Despite the arrest, Herrera was hopeful — at the time. For years, she had risked her own safety notating everything she could. She had the names, addresses and phone numbers of those involved; she had written down vehicle makes, models and even license plate numbers.

“When she got arrested, she told me that she was relieved — because now she felt that she was going to get help,” Martinez said. “She said, ‘OK, it’s done. Finally. I’ll be able to tell my story.'”

‘I was in a world that I didn’t know’

As Martinez explained, prior to her time in Utah, Herrera had never personally interacted with any drugs. She was completely naive to what she had been forced to deliver — often at 1 or 2 a.m. with her newborn baby in her arms.

“I knew that the green paper was the black (drug) and the other, the clear paper, was the white kind,” Herrera told EastIdahoNews.com when asked what drugs with which she was dealing.

She told investigators as much. In fact, after speaking extensively with her, the Utah State Police and Attorney General identified Herrera as a victim of human trafficking and declined to press charges, Martinez said.

Idaho was not as understanding.

According to Martinez, Idaho had no interest in the information Herrera had collected and was willing to turn over. She said the state wanted to make an example of her client.

“They saw her as some kind of threat, even though she was very honest with them,” Martinez said.

“Utah didn’t charge me with possession,” Herrera said. “I didn’t have any charges for possession or usage. I didn’t have drugs in my system.”

Because they could not prove Herrera was ever in possession of any drugs, she was not charged with possession. Instead, she was charged with two counts of trafficking, two counts of delivery and two counts of delivery with a child present.

Those charges, Martinez said, were based purely on the testimony of the confidential informant — a partner of Herrera’s handlers and abusers. And, she added, the Idaho State Police never recovered the money used to make the purchase. Martinez said that money went directly to Herrera’s handlers, never to be seen again.

Herrera reached a plea agreement with the Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office and pleaded guilty to trafficking heroin in exchange for all other charges being dismissed. She received a sentence of three to nine years in prison and over $15,000 in fees and fines.

‘She was not treated fairly at all’

While her deal was being negotiated, Herrera spent 457 days in jail — between Bannock, Jefferson and Madison counties. The worst of that time, she said, was spent in Bannock County.

There, she says she was “treated worse than a dog.”

Herrera described her cell as a small room with no toilet. And because she speaks no English — and there was no access to a translator — Herrera said there was no way for her to communicate her needs. She took to storing her waste in makeshift toilets, using milk cartons and food containers.

“They didn’t treat me like a human,” she said. “It was about to drive me crazy. The only thing that kept me strong was my faith.”

Herrera said she was subjected to bullying and racial discrimination, not just by fellow inmates but by detention deputies as well. With language barriers, she said it was difficult to request medical assistance.

At one point she required emergency care and was taken the hospital. She claims money was taken from her commissary to pay for the visit — money of which she had precious little.

EastIdahoNews.com requested comment from the Bannock County Sheriff’s Office. Due to the allegations, a county attorney limited the office’s responses. We did receive a prepared statement from Sheriff Tony Manu, however.

“The Bannock County Sheriff’s Office is committed to providing professional, quality care to all people in our custody. To ensure this, we have several resources available to accommodate non-English-speaking individuals,” the statement says in part.

“One of the fundamental principles my office operates on is respect. We strive to treat all people with dignity, courtesy, tolerance and sympathetic listening, regardless of their native language, and I am proud of our staff’s continued dedication to this goal.”

Manu, who was not the sheriff during Herrera’s Bannock County incarceration, said that his office currently employs deputies who speak seven languages among them. And, he added, inmates have access to 24-hour off-site translation providers.

As Martinez further claimed, Herrera was not always provided translation services while dealing with other aspects of the legal process. She said that, in a presentence investigation provided at a sentencing hearing, Herrera is quoted as apologizing for her actions and taking fault for her crimes.

Martinez told EastIdahoNews.com that Herrera vehemently denies making that statement.

‘She’s in a good place now’

After three years in prison, Herrera was released. And with aid from the Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition, she found an attorney who won a stay of the mandated deportation ordered by the court.

Instead, Herrera was moved to another state. And custody of her child was returned.

“(I am) so happy, but it took me a long time to adapt. I still have nightmares, I still have a hard time sleeping,” Herrera told EastIdahoNews.com, adding that she trying to move forward and learn to trust people again.

“All of this I’ve lived through has made me stronger and (able to) fight for my children that I love so much,” she added.

Finally feeling safe and comfortable is what inspired Herrera to share her story. Asked what advice she had for people in her situation, she contemplated for a moment before answering.

“When people are in that situation, it’s hard. It’s life or death,” she said. “They told me that the only way out was prison or death, and they were right. Prison was the only way that I was able to escape these individuals. … It’s sad to say that it was a blessing, going to prison, because I was able to finally be free.”

Herrera’s is one of far too many stories that portray the systemic failures of states like Idaho in dealing with trafficking victims, Zielinski said.

RELATED | Report: Idaho is failing to protect victims of child sex trafficking

According to the Bureau of Justice, Idaho has the highest rate of incarcerated women per capita. The Sentencing Project claims that rate to be 110 women per every 100,000 residents — the national average, it says, is 47 per 100,000.

The state’s out-of-date understanding of trafficking plays a huge role in those numbers, Zielinski said, adding that Idaho’s per-capita incarceration rate of women is not just the highest in the nation, but the highest in the world.

Protecting other women and girls from experiences like Herrera’s, she said, will rely on cooperation between state, local, federal and private agencies. And that will not happen until those in power decide to commit to ending human trafficking.