SAVANNAH — Federal authorities said Thursday they have uncovered an illegal sex trafficking network that forced women into prostitution and traded them like slaves between cities in Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas.
Twelve people — eight men and four women — were indicted in U.S. District Court in Savannah.
Prosecutors said they had acted since 2008 as a network of pimps who lured dozens of women to the United States from Mexico and Central America and forced them to work as prostitutes in homes, hotel rooms and mobile home parks. Men were charged $30 to have sex with them and the women were moved between cities or states about once a week, authorities said.
"Some of these women would be forced to perform up to 30 acts of prostitution a day," said Edward Tarver, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. Speaking at a news conference in Savannah, he added: "I'm outraged that trafficking of other human beings is ongoing in our country today."
Authorities said they rescued 11 women, most in their 20s and from Mexico and Nicaragua, who were being used as sex slaves. They're getting help while assisting prosecutors with their criminal case, authorities said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said the case should serve as a wakeup call as to how widespread sex trafficking has become in the United States. He noted his agents made 967 arrests related to human trafficking and sex tourism last year.
"To those who would believe that sex trafficking doesn't happen in America, reflect on this case and think again," Morton said at the news conference with Tarver.
A Jan. 11 indictment was unsealed Thursday. It charges a Mexican national identified as Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez with conspiring with other suspects to use false promises of profit and prosperity to lure women illegally into the U.S. and use threats to force them into prostitution. The indictment accuses Mendez-Hernandez of telling one woman she would be returned to Mexico if she didn't have sex with at least 25 men each day.
Prosecutors said the sex network largely catered to Latino immigrants, and therefore had prostitutes working not only in larger cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., but also in small farm communities such as Bonaire, Ga.
The indictment says the suspects would swap cellphone photos of the women to decide which ones they wanted brought to them. Authorities gave no details about how the women were smuggled into the U.S. and what sort of living conditions they endured.
Authorities said 10 of the indicted suspects had been arrested by Thursday afternoon and two were still being sought.
Six of the defendants are being held in southeast Georgia, including Mendez-Hernandez, whose age and hometown were not given. He made a brief court appearance Thursday afternoon in Savannah. None of them had attorneys and they were not asked to enter pleas.
Those accused of operating the Southeastern prostitution network weren't the only ones arrested. Morton said 44 additional men, all from countries outside the U.S., were taken into custody. He said most were caught paying for sex with the prostitutes. Those in the U.S. illegally would be deported, while all others would be prosecuted, Morton added.