The mother of a baby found dead in a duffel bag at the U.S. Mexico border may have been a victim of human trafficking, according to multiple, independent law enforcement sources familiar with the case.
43-year old Mercy Maria Becerra and 39-year old Johnny Lewis Hartley were detained last Wednesday by Mexican Customs agents trying to enter Mexico from the San Ysidro pedestrian foot bridge.
Hartley was attempting to carry the baby’s body in a duffel bag across the customs checkpoint into Tijuana.
The couple are not related to the baby, but they do know the baby’s mother from their hometown of Whittier.
Both are now charged with murder in the baby’s death caused by drowning, according to a San Diego District Attorney.
An autopsy also revealed the baby, between 2 to 4 years old, suffered from malnutrition, dehydration, and there were signs of trauma on her body.
There had been no missing person report filed for the baby.
Last Friday, Hartley and Becerra pleaded not guilty. A public defender was appointed for both defendants.
A judge set bail at $2 million for each.
Hartley has an extensive criminal history, including a conviction for involuntary manslaughter and multiple gang enhancements on his record.
Sources told NBC 7 the child’s mother, a human trafficking victim, may have become pregnant with the baby as a result of being a victim of those prior crimes.
Former neighbors said Becerra and Hartley had dozens of kids at their former residence.
Law enforcement officials do not believe the baby was trafficked, but nonetheless was a tragic victim of a criminal enterprise.
Susan Johnson, an advocate for human trafficking victims, and president of Alabaster Jar Project, a faith-based non-profit, said it’s not uncommon for traffickers to use children to manipulate, coerce or event threaten their victims.
“They’ll purposely impregnate the women that they’re trafficking, so that they can keep that control, and they’ll use the child as a manipulation device to be able to get the mom to do what they want them to do,” Johnson said.
“I haven’t had an instance that I have come across yet where they have threatened abuse on the child, but they have threatened to take the child away or threatened to have control of the child, and not give mom access to them, and it’s a very real threat,” she said.
Deputy DA Kurt Mechals said last Friday the murder occurred in Whittier.
The prosecution of the case may be moved to Whittier.
Both defendants were in San Diego Superior Court Thursday morning for a routine hearing, and are scheduled to return Sept. 7.