February 14, 2010 in Nation/World

Baptists’ adviser under scrutiny

Child trafficking in El Salvador alleged
Patricia Mazzei And Gerardo Reyes McClatchy

Torres Puello
(Full-size photo)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – The man providing legal advice to American church workers charged with trying to take children out of Haiti did jail time in the United States years before emerging as the key suspect in a child prostitution ring in El Salvador, according records and interviews.

The mother and stepfather of Jorge Anibal Torres Puello told the Miami Herald in an extensive interview Saturday the fugitive wanted by Salvadoran police was their son, who has been advising the church volunteers in the unfolding legal drama.

“That’s him,” a teary Ana Puello said from her modest home in the outskirts of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. “But those things they say about him, I doubt they’re true. … He would never hurt a child.”

Though his wife was convicted in the case, Torres Puello left the country – wanted by Salvadoran police – before ending up in Haiti.

A self-styled lawyer with no law degree, Torres Puello 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 was issued for his arrest.

The revelations represent another twist in the drama surrounding the church workers from Idaho, who have been jailed for trying to take 33 children from Haiti without legal permission after the earthquake ripped through Port-au-Prince on January 12.

It’s unclear how the 32-year-old Torres Puello became involved with the Central Valley Baptist Church, or when he met the group’s controversial leader, Laura Silsby.

Torres Puello could not be reached Saturday for comment.

For the past 10 days, 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 Salvadoran police announced an investigation into whether Torres Puello was the same suspect who led the notorious trafficking ring.

Using photographs and fingerprints, police say they are close to confirming Torres Puello is the same suspect wanted since last year for leading a large network that recruited children for prostitution in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.

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