Colombian sex worker says she lived in fear for her life in testimony against alleged sex trafficking ring

A sex worker has told a court that she was still living in fear for her life, as she testified in the compilation of evidence against an alleged sex trafficking ring. One accused is granted bail.

File photo
File photo

A sex worker has told a court that she was still living in fear for her life, as she testified in the compilation of evidence against hotel manager Roque Borg, 51, from St. Paul’s Bay, cab driver Sylvan Pace, 48, from Gharb, hotel room service attendant Jorge Emilio Herrera Mendez and Amira Khadraoui, 27, a restaurant dishwasher from Gozo.

The four are facing charges relating to the trafficking of South American women for sex work. Borg and Pace are charged with isolating and repeatedly threatening the women, as well as living off the proceeds of prostitution. Borg alone also stands charged with trafficking and coercing them into prostitution, as well as raping one of the victims. An additional charge of possession of an unlicensed firearm was also made against him.

Pace is additionally charged with knowingly assisting Borg in human trafficking. Mendez is accused of instigating the crime, defrauding one of the victims and immigration offences. 

When the case continued before magistrate Astrid May Grima, Khadraoui, assisted by lawyer Martin Farrugia, had further charges pressed regarding the disturbance she caused in the courtroom after her arraignment. She pleaded not guilty. Farrugia informed the court that his client was apologising for the incident. “Let’s hope it doesn’t repeat itself,” remarked the magistrate.

The first witness said she had come to Malta on holiday in February this year to meet with a Colombian friend of hers named Jason, although she was unable to recall his surname.

“I had been in Madrid and was speaking with him, and we decided to go to Malta. Then I rented an apartment for myself, and he rented a separate apartment.”

The witness said she had not left the islands because her passport had expired in the meantime and because she liked Malta.

She shared the apartment with another woman, Jorge Emilio, whom she had met through her friend, Jason. Jason also lived with them.

The court pointed out that she had just said that Jason lived in a separate apartment. The witness said she had subsequently moved to St. Paul’s Bay because she wanted independence. But she allowed the other woman and Emilio to move in with her to help them. She and the other woman shared the rent, “but Emilio didn’t have any money, and we put him up. He worked at the hotel with Ricky." The woman was referring to Roque Borg, who she calls "Ricky" in her testimony.

Grima asked the woman who this person was, as it was the first time he had been mentioned.

“I got to know Ricky through Emilio; I don’t know his full name. I only know his name is Ricky because Emilio introduced him to me.” 

The woman said she was paid to have sex with Emilio’s friend at the St. Paul’s Bay apartment. “The first time he met me, he paid me for a service. He paid €70 to have sex with me.” The money was paid directly to her, she said.

The witness was asked how she had found the apartment. She found it on Facebook and paid the owner in cash but didn’t know the owner’s name. She stayed there for one month, paying between €700-€800 in rent. She had not kept the contract, she said. The prosecutor asked whether she had any correspondence with the owner. She did not.

The court inquired as to how she would spend her day. “I would either go shopping or walk by the sea. I made friends who would take me out, with no sex or anything.”

Emilio would work night shifts at a hotel, she said.

Grima asked her what had happened since February to land her in court. “I don’t think you are here because you were walking by the sea,” remarked the magistrate, ordering her to reply.

“What happened is that the police came to the house,” she said, earning her a warning that she would be found in contempt.

Inspector Busuttil stepped in to assist and asked the woman what she had told the police after she was charged with prostitution. 

Ricky had rented the apartment, she explained. “I know Ricky through Emilio. He offered me work that we [witness and another woman] would live in an apartment, and he would bring us, clients. They had placed an advert on some page.”

The men had explained what the clients wanted beforehand, she said. Asked to explain what this was, she replied, “they wanted sex.”

A woman who she had nicknamed “King Kong” and a bald man also worked with Ricky, she said. Khadraoui laughed at the “King Kong” reference, which was for her. The bald man is understood to be Pace. These people would answer the phones and make appointments for the clients. “5, 6, 7 every day.” I was the one who worked the most. “The clients would pay me in cash. When the client left, I would hand the money to either the bald man, King Kong or Ricky.”

The sex worker would charge €60 for 30 min and €120 for an hour, and the woman would keep half, she said. Ricky had a laptop from which he would post the advertisements. She would work till midnight, she said. 

Ricky would receive instructions through Google translate on his mobile phone, the witness explained.

“When I didn’t want to work, he would get very annoyed. I would see him making faces and speaking his language, and I would reply in mine. I would still have to work,” she said.

“He was aggressive, yes, but he didn’t hit me. He was impulsive.”

She had slept with Ricky three times, she said, adding that the last time he had forced her to perform oral sex on him without a condom against her will. “He paid me to do this. To be precise, he paid me to have sex with him, but I don’t want to do anything without a condom.”

“He started groping me, and when I saw this, I told him ‘, you have to pay me.’ Then he grabbed my head and forced it down. I didn’t want to because he had paid me for sex, not oral… I don’t want to do certain things without a condom.”

“I tried to show him that I wasn’t scared of him, but he’s taller than me and stronger. Then he had sex with me.” Ricky had paid her €70 on every occasion, she confirmed.

When she decided to leave, she had received threatening messages from “King Kong” via her colleague, demanding €600 or she would “find her in the street.” The woman’s belongings were thrown into the street, she said. 

She hadn’t reported the matter to the police because she feared for her life, she said, later saying that Khadraoui had become violent when she had expressed her wish to leave.

One of the messages was read out in court. “I’m serious. Blocking me does not stop me from doing what I will. There are many ways to find you.”

Other messages, sent from a mobile phone number saved as “Ricky’s employees, “used by clients to call for appointments were read out.

“You are a bitch with no respect. I know you are going to have a bad life. You have still not accepted what we have done to keep you here. How much money did the rent cost you? Leaving us all here like animals. You make me sick.”

The witness had saved the number as “Ricky’s Employee” because she didn’t know her name, but she would be in the apartment answering the phone. She had seen Ricky collect money, she said, adding that she passed on the money to him and the other accused.

In the beginning, they would take all the money and then pay her later, she said but clarified that after some time, in order to avoid problems, she would get the client to pay her first, hold on to her share and hand over the rest immediately after the client left.

Grima asked the woman whether she would be told in advance what services her clients would be expected by the three accused. She confirmed that this would happen but would not know who the client was going to be.

On occasion, Ricky would bring a briefcase containing documents, a chrome-plated pistol and a phone to the flat. “I’m a curious person. When he would open the briefcase, I saw them inside it. But he never threatened me with the weapon. He respected me enough not to do that.”

Inspector Busuttil asked about Emilio’s part in the things. “I had no problem with Emilio. I only had one problem; we had an argument about a sweater. It belonged to a client, and I told him to give it back to me, but he hung on to it.”

The other trafficked woman “had a problem with Emilio as he had taken her passport or something like that,” she said but insisted that she never had issues with him. She repeated that Emilio had introduced her to Ricky for a paid sexual encounter.

She had a bad relationship with “the bald one,” she said, explaining that he would force her to service clients against her wishes.

At the end of her remote testimony, the woman was shown the court’s video feed. She recognised the accused as the persons she was referring to in her testimony.

Cross-examined by lawyer Martin Fenech, the witness was asked how much money she had when she had arrived in Malta. “€2,000,” she replied. “What did she do with them?” “In Madrid, they had carried out some tests on me and told me I was positive. When I arrived from Malta, I did more tests and had to stay in a hotel until I tested negative.” She had paid €600 for her hotel quarantine stay and another €600 for food during that time. 

She had previously worked as an escort, she said but insisted that she would only accompany clients to social events and not offer sexual services. “These are people who have been in contact with me for several years. You can check my passport; I’ve been to London, Spain…” she said, explaining that to her the word ‘escort’ did not mean sex worker.

Asked how she ended up in prostitution, she said they had offered her the work. Answering a follow-up question, she said she had not been forced to do so.

Lawyer Martin Fenech repeatedly asked why she hadn’t gone back home after her passport expired and had instead stayed in quarantine, leading the magistrate to order the lawyer not to continue pressing the question. “It was obvious that she wasn’t bothered to return home and that she stayed here because of [her Colombian friend] Jason. She’s said these a hundred thousand times,” remarked the magistrate.

Fenech asked whether the woman had ever worked as a prostitute before meeting the accused. “No. As I said before, I would only accompany clients, not provide sexual services.”
He asked why she decided to switch to prostitution.

Dimitrijevic objected to the line of questioning, but the court allowed it. 

“I accepted because he told me I would be doing certain things, and then when I moved into the flat, it turned out to be different. He had told me I would be doing escort work.” 

She had stayed for a month because she needed the money, she said. The court refused to allow Fenech to ask whether the woman had been a virgin when she came to Malta, on the grounds that it was irrelevant.

“King Kong” continued to threaten her till the end of April, she said, sending messages to her, demanding money. The woman explained that she had been afraid of what the accused could do to her, adding that she was still afraid of retribution by their relatives in Malta.

Cross-examined by Marion Camilleri, she confirmed that she had been introduced to Roque (Ricky) by Emilio and that he had been a client of hers. During her cross-examination, the woman confirmed that she had worked as a prostitute on occasion before meeting the accused. She had advertised her services on a Maltese web page advertising sex workers and showed this page to the police inspector.

At the end of a marathon sitting, Roque Borg was granted bail, against a €5,000 deposit and a €15,000 personal guarantee. He was also ordered to sign a bail book everyday and observe a curfew. The other accused did not file bail requests.

Lawyers Darlene Grima and Ramon Bonnett Sladden represented the office of the Attorney General in today’s sitting.

Lawyers Franco Debono and Marion Camilleri represented Roque Borg.
Khadraoui was assisted by lawyer Martin Farrugia.

Lawyer Martin Fenech represented Pace and Mendez as legal aid.

Lawyers Lara Dimitrijevic and Stephanie Caruana appeared parte civile for the victims.