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Southeast sex-trafficking case exposes horrors of the trade

By Ray Sanchez, CNN
updated 8:43 PM EST, Wed February 19, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Prosecutors say sex-trafficking ring traded women like slaves
  • Ring leader, sentenced to life Wednesday, was among 25 defendants indicted last year
  • "I felt stained and worthless. I felt like garbage," says one woman

(CNN) -- For the young immigrant women, the brutality of America's burgeoning sex-trafficking industry is still vivid.

In a statement to federal officials in Savannah, Georgia, one woman said she was pregnant and lying face down on the floor when a trafficker literally jumped on her back, forcing her to miscarry. Others described being forced to go without sleep or food until having had sex with at least 40 men.

In a telephone interview late Wednesday, a 25-year-old woman from Mexico City talked about trips to sprawling farms in Georgia and the Carolinas. There, 20, as many as 30, migrant workers stood in line outside shacks, waiting to have sex with women before the women were shuttled to other farms only to relive the horror.

"I felt dirty," said the woman, who asked not to be identified by name. "I felt stained and worthless. I felt like garbage."

A Mexican national who operated out of Savannah was sentenced to life in federal prison Wednesday for his role in a sex-trafficking ring that prosecutors said traded women like slaves throughout the southeastern United States.

Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez, 35, was described by prosecutors as a leader among 25 defendants indicted last year in Operation Dark Night, the largest sex-trafficking organization ever prosecuted in the Southern District of Georgia. His lawyer, Jonathan Hunt, could not be reached for comment

Mendez-Hernandez and his partners brought the young women into the U.S. from Mexico and other countries and forced them to have sex with up to 50 men each day for $25 apiece, prosecutors said. The network mostly catered to Latino immigrants, with the women traded to members in cities in the Southeast. Some victims were forced to have children with ring members, who threatened the children if the women failed to comply to their demands, according to prosecutors.

The 25-year-old from Mexico spent five years in the throes of the trafficking ring. She said she knows she isn't alone.

"This is happening in every state," she said. "It's a huge network. This is just one case but there are hundreds of others."

Brock Nicholson, special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's homeland security investigations in Georgia and the Carolinas, said Operation Dark Night rescued a dozen women but he acknowledged that hundreds continue to be ensnared in the trade nationally.

"As you and I are speaking," he said, "hundreds of women are being victimized in this way, without question."

Mendez-Hernandez received the longest sentence of the 23 defendants who have pleaded guilty in the case. Two suspects are still being sought.

Prosecutors said he earned enough to send $1,500 a week back to his family in Mexico.

"Some of the women were getting absolutely nothing," said Nicholson. "They were basically paying off the debt that never goes away. It was indentured servitude. Others were women who had found themselves in prostitution through other pimps, and they might have received a pittance."

Women told authorities they were often beaten and that Mendez-Hernandez would make them have sex with dozens of men without breaks.

U.S. District Judge B. Avant Edenfield also ordered Menendez-Hernandez to pay $705,000 in restitution to the women.

The 25-year-old woman from Mexico said she worried about young women trapped in other sex-trafficking rings.

"I'm happy (at the sentence for Mendez-Hernandez) but, at the same time, I'm sad because I know that for every 10 women rescued, there are 50 to 100 more women are brought in by the traffickers," she said. "Unfortunately, they're not 18- or 20-year-olds anymore. They're minors as young as 13 who are being trafficked. They're little girls."

CNN's Vivian Kuo contributed to this report.

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