The case of the Idaho missionaries accused of trying to smuggle children out of Haiti took an unexpected turn this weekend, when it was revealed that their attorney might be a child trafficker wanted in El Salvador. Jorge Puello, a.k.a. Jorge Torres Orellana and Jorge Anibal Torres Puello, is a con man with an extensive rap sheet and arrest warrants in several countries.
Puello is accused of luring young women in Central America and the Caribbean with promises of making them models, then forcing them into a life of prostitution. In the U.S., he faces charges of bank fraud and theft of government property. He is also believed to have jumped bail after an arrest in Miami in 1999 for possession of fake documents.
It is still a mystery why Puello is so intent in posing as an important member of the Latin American Jewish community.
The missionaries have become Puello’s latest victims, though it is not clear why he chose to involve himself in such a high-profile case. Puello contacted the Central Valley Baptist Church just two days after the Americans were arrested in Haiti. He offered to represent them pro bono, and in later statements to the press he said he was “not going to charge these people a dime” because he was the president of the Sephardic Jewish Community in the Dominican Republic, and he understood their plight.
The families took him up on his offer, not knowing that Puello isn’t even an attorney. His mother told the Miami Herald that he studied law at Universidad del Caribe in Santo Domingo, but a university spokesperson said that Puello enrolled twice, in 2000 and in 2007, but failed to actually attend classes both times.
The fake attorney’s claim of being a leader among the Dominican Jewish community also appears to be bogus. According to The New York Times, public records show an organization called Sephardic Jewish Community registered under Puello’s name, but the country’s Jewish leaders have said that they never heard of him or his group. “I don’t know any Jews with that name,” said Rabbi Shimon Pelman, director of the Chabad Lubavitch in the Dominican Republic, to the Miami Herald.
However, this is not the first time that the alleged con man has claimed to be a Jewish leader. Salvadoran police found documents belonging to a Sephardic organization while executing a search warrant at Puello’s house in a suburb of San Salvador in May 2009. The police had come to the house to investigate the claims of three underage Nicaraguan girls who said they had been held there against their will and forced to prostitute themselves.
Puello had escaped by the time the police arrived, but his wife, Ana Josefa Galvarina Ramírez Orellana, was arrested. Shortly after her arrest, a press release was sent to Salvadoran media by someone claiming to represent the World Jewish Congress; it claimed that both Puello and his wife were innocent, and had been the victims of extortion. The WJC quickly denied issuing that document, and it is still a mystery why Puello is so intent in posing as an important member of the Latin American Jewish community.
According to the Salvadoran government, Puello is the head of a human-trafficking ring that operated in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic. He is accused of coaxing girls as young as 14 to travel with him to El Salvador for what he told them would be high-paying modeling jobs. Once there, the girls were kept locked inside a house, and were forced to pose nude for pornographic sites and escort ads. The only time these girls saw the outside of the house was when they were transported, under heavy security, to meet their clients. The victims said that they were told, when they left their home countries, that they would make up to $1,000 a week in El Salvador. Instead, they received $60 a week for their services.
At the time of the operation at Puello’s house, Salvadoran authorities were under the impression that he was a citizen of El Salvador. However, they found that he also had Dominican, Canadian, and American passports. Puello’s mother, who is Dominican, confirmed in an interview with the Miami Herald that he was born in Yonkers, N.Y. He was raised in the Dominican Republic by his grandmother, and moved to Miami in his late teens. He was arrested there in 1999 for possession of a fake ID, but he jumped bail and moved apparently to Puerto Rico and later back to the Dominican Republic. He is listed as a fugitive by the U.S. Marshals Service.
Puello’s decision to seek all this media attention by deliberately getting involved with the missionaries’ case is puzzling, but he seems to have disappeared once again. His phone has apparently been turned off, and his family in Santo Domingo says he went missing over the weekend. In the meantime, the disclosure of his past antics has delayed the release of the 10 Americans who remain jailed in Port-au-Prince.
Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Orange County Register. He lives in Manhattan and is an avid Yankees fan. You'll find him on Twitter as @cddNY.