PATRICIA MAZZEI AND GERARDO REYES
February 15, 2010
SANTO DOMINGO: The man providing legal advice to American church workers charged with trying to take children out of Haiti may have a string of legal charges against him in the US and has emerged as the key suspect in a child prostitution ring in El Salvador.
The mother and stepfather of Jorge Anibal Torres Puello told The Miami Herald on Saturday that the fugitive wanted by Salvadorean police was their son, who has been advising the church volunteers.
''That's him,'' Ana Puello said from her modest home in the outskirts of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. ''But those things they say about him, I doubt they're true … He told me, 'Mami, I swear I didn't.' He would never hurt a child.''
Though his wife was convicted in the case, Mr Torres Puello left the country - wanted by Salvadorean police - before ending up in Haiti. A self-styled lawyer with no law degree, he has had other brushes with the law, including a charge in Miami in 1999 for possessing fake documents, records show. His bond was later revoked and a warrant issued for his arrest.
The revelations are another twist in the drama surrounding the church workers from Idaho, who have been jailed for trying to take 33 children from Haiti without permission after the earthquake ripped through Port-au-Prince on January 12.
It is not clear how Mr Torres Puello, 32, became involved with the Central Valley Baptist Church.
But his stepfather, Franco Cerminara, said his son had no intention of taking the children to the US, but to a church in the Dominican Republic where space had been leased.
Mr Cerminara said he had gone with his stepson to take food and medicine to the jailed church workers.
For the past 10 days Mr Torres Puello has been a visible figure in the church case, granting interviews with reporters about his role as legal adviser to the group.
But little was known about his background until Friday, when Salvadorean police announced an investigation into whether he was the same suspect who led the trafficking ring.
Using photos and fingerprints, police say they are close to confirming that Mr Torres Puello is the suspect wanted since last year for leading a network that recruited children for prostitution in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador. In the interview with the Miami Herald, his mother confirmed that his wife - Ana Josefa Galvarina Ramirez Orellana - had been convicted in the case and was in jail in San Salvador.
Police broke the ring last year after three children aged 14, 15 and 16 escaped from a house in El Salvador and went to the police to report they had been forced to pose naked to promote the enterprise.