ATLANTA (AP) — Raids on a network of sex traffickers around the Southeast resulted in more than two-dozen arrests and the rescues of Latin American women forced to work as prostitutes, authorities said Friday.
The undercover investigation identified a loose organization of independent traffickers who worked together to transport and exploit Hispanic women for prostitution in southern states, authorities said.
An indictment filed in federal court in Macon charges 38 people with sex trafficking-related crimes, 29 of whom were arrested Thursday in eight southern states. The other nine remain at large.
Investigators also rescued 15 people they believe are victims during raids on brothels and homes, authorities said. The arrests were made in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.
"Human sex trafficking is a cancer that we must cut out, and then aggressively fight with all of our resources," Michael Moore, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said in a news release.
Some of the victims were kidnapped and forced into sexual violence, while others were promised a better life and then held hostage by people who kept them financially dependent or threatened to harm or shame them or their families, Moore said.
All 38 people accused in the indictment are charged with conspiracy to transport a person in interstate commerce for prostitution. Six of them are also charged with conspiracy to participate in the sex trafficking of a minor and three are charged with promoting prostitution.
The investigation called Operation Safe Haven began in July 2014 in the rural south Georgia town of Moultrie and was led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
The indictment describes a network used to recruit young women, including underage teens, to work as prostitutes because men are willing to pay more to have sex with them.
At least one underage girl was enticed from her home in Mexico by a trafficker who convinced her to run away with him, promising her a better life, the indictment says. Instead, he trained her as a prostitute and sent her with delivery drivers to various cities, where she sometimes performed 25 sex acts a day during the week and 30 sex acts a day on weekends, the indictment says. She turned 18 in May 2011, and from 2006 until January of 2013, she worked as a prostitute in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and elsewhere.
Another woman was lured to the United States for a supposed waitressing job, but once she arrived in Georgia she was sent to Mississippi, where she was told she would have to work as a prostitute to repay her smuggling fee. She then worked as a prostitute in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas from January 2012 until February 2015, the indictment says.
The indictment also details the experiences of several other women who were forced or recruited into prostitution.
"To the criminals behind these illegal enterprises, these women are just pieces of meat used to pull a quick profit and then discarded or passed on to the next trafficker down the line," said Special Agent in Charge Nick Annan, who heads ICE's Homeland Security Investigations division in Atlanta.