U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents Thursday arrested 47 suspects in a sex-trafficking operation, including a dozen purported ringleaders, that used young women and girls in an active prostitution ring in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. Eleven of the victims were rescued.
“ICE investigates a wide array of crimes, but the trafficking of women and girls for prostitution is among the most sinister,” said ICE Director John Morton. “Few crimes so damage their victims and undermine basic human decency. Our fight against this evil must be relentless, both here and abroad.”
According to an indictment in the case, Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez conspired with others to transport their victims across interstate boundaries to engage in prostitution. In addition, the indictment said, Mr. Mendez-Hernandez conspired with at least three others to entice women from Mexico, Nicaragua and elsewhere to travel to the U.S. with false promises of the American dream.
The indictment also said the suspected gang members used cellular phones to coordinate their activities, trade women and select others to be used for various “clients.”
Once inside the U.S., the women were threatened and forced to commit acts of prostitution at numerous locations in Savannah, Ga., and throughout the Southeast, the indictment said. In one such instance identified in the indictment, Mr. Mendez-Hernandez is alleged to have told a Mexican woman that she would be sent back to her home country unless she serviced 25 clients a day.
The arrests were part of an ICE law enforcement initiative known as “Operation Dark Night,” led by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). Agents accounted for 13 criminal arrests and 44 administrative arrests, as well as the rescue of the 11 victims.
“In what essentially amounts to slavery in the year 2013, the conduct described in the indictment against these defendants is reprehensible,” said U.S. Attorney Edward Tarver in Georgia. “This case is a prime example of the United States Attorney’s Office and HSI recognizing that human trafficking is a cancer facing our society and taking a stand to stop the victimization of women involved in sex trafficking.”
Mr. Morton said HSI provides relief to victims of human trafficking by allowing for their continued presence in the United States during criminal proceedings. Victims may also qualify for a “T visa,” which is issued to victims of human trafficking who have complied with reasonable requests for assistance in investigations and prosecutions.
Operation Dark Night was led by HSI, with assistance from the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP); CBP Air and Marine Operations; the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations; the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department; the Chatham County, Ga., Sheriff’s Office; the Garden City, Ga., Police Department; and the Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics Team.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Tania D. Groover and E. Greg Gilluly Jr. are prosecuting the case.