Cancun, Mexico (CNN)It was an unusual scene, especially for two Mexican cities known more for beaches and tourism.
'Spa' raids in resort towns spark outrage over Mexico's human trafficking problem
"We want justice!" shouted dozens of people gathered at dawn outside a state courthouse in the beach resort of Cancun on Thursday last week. The crowd, mostly activists, students and human rights attorneys, was pleasantly surprised when their numbers increased by the arrival of members of a bikers' club.
Several hours later, the same protesters showed up at another state courthouse in the nearby beach resort of Playa del Carmen, chanting the same message and adding another one: "No more impunity!"
In both cases, judges would hear evidence about the state's biggest human trafficking raid in years, involving women from as far as Argentina and Germany who were allegedly tricked into working as prostitutes.
On the night of July 30, officers under the command of the Quintana Roo's State's Attorney's Office raided two buildings in Cancun and Playa del Carmen. They ultimately detained 13 people, twelve of whom were later arraigned on charges of human trafficking, among others.
According to Quintana Roo state Attorney General Óscar Montes de Oca, the suspects had held dozens of women in captivity, many from foreign countries.
"They advertised as a spa business; but in reality, there were sexual acts happening in those two places where women were being exploited," Montes de Oca told CNN in an interview. Though they advertised separately, the two locations are believed to have been run by the same people, the state's attorney's office said.
Online ads seen by CNN show the raided buildings operated a business offering "the best escorts in Playa del Carmen" with photos of scantily clad women, touted as "available 24/7."
The advertisements ran on the dark web for years, Montes de Oca says, and were not easily found by the average person. It took the work of his office's cyber-crimes unit about a week to find the ads and begin the investigation. Investigators also used surveillance and other investigation methods, according to the attorney general.
Altogether, Montes de Oca says his officers found 21 women between the ages of 21 and 25 who were forced to work at those two places. At the Cancun site, there were two women from Venezuela, two from Mexico, and one each from Argentina, Colombia and Germany, according to the state Attorney General's Office. There were an additional 11 Venezuelan women at the site in Playa del Carmen, two Mexican women and one Colombian woman.
All had been lured by offers of high-paying jobs as personal assistants or spa therapists, Montes de Oca told CNN. "Once here, they would tell them that they had to pay for their transportation, plane tickets, immigration processing and that the way to pay for that was through prostitution. If they refused, they were threatened with physical harm or worse," he said, adding that the traffickers would take victims' passports and other personal identification documents, so that escaping was nearly impossible.
In both cases, judges granted several months for the state and the defense to carry out investigations, with follow-up hearings in the fall. During that time, the 12 suspects must remain in detention.
These cases, in what are supposed to be resort paradises, highlight Mexico's not-so-secret human trafficking issue.
In an eerily similar case in November 2017, 24 foreign women, including ten Venezuelans, were freed during a Mexican Federal Police raid in Toluca, the capital of Mexico state. Like those in Cancun and Playa del Carmen, they had been promised high-paying jobs and traveled to Mexico with tourist visas, before being forced to work as prostitutes once in Mexico under threats of violence.
Many organized crime cartels have branched into human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Mario Hidalgo Garfias, a former Mexico City pimp who was convicted of human trafficking, told CNN in 2015, "You can only sell a drug once, but you can sell a woman countless times."
Figures cited in a 2019 US State Department report show the Mexican government reported identifying 706 victims in 2018, 667 the previous year and 740 in 2016. NGOs say the true number of victims could be much higher.
According to that report, law enforcement officials, NGOs and the UN say organized criminal groups are not only involved in human trafficking, they've got help: In at least 17 of Mexico's 32 states, criminal groups successfully created "alliances with federal, state, and local government officials" to commit trafficking and related crimes, the report says.
For Claudia Lizaldi, a Mexican actress and human rights activist who showed up at the Cancun protest, the time for raising international awareness about this kind of crime is long past. "Nobody deserves to lose a child to human trafficking. No child deserves to be a victim of human trafficking. No woman, regardless of her country of origin, should be a victim of human trafficking. We, as Mexicans, shouldn't have to put up with this reality where Mexico is a top destination for sexual tourism," Lizaldi said.
The message is gaining traction. José Alfredo Romero, leader of one of Mexico's largest biker associations also showed up at the protests along with dozens of his group's members. "We are asking the judicial branch for justice for those victims who were kept against their will and lived in captivity. They're not alone. Mexican people are here with them," Romero said outside the courthouse.
Some activists say the two raids in Cancun and Playa del Carmen are an anomaly in a country where impunity reigns. Multiple "No More Impunity" posters were held by protesters outside the Cancún and Playa del Carmen courthouses.
Karla Jacinto, 28, a human trafficking victim who was forced to work as prostitute for four years across Mexico starting when she was only 12, told CNN in 2015 that those who were supposed to protect her, ended up abusing her.
One day, when she was working at a hotel known for prostitution, police showed up. They kicked out of all of the customers, Jacinto says, and shut down the hotel. She thought it was her lucky day -- a police operation to rescue her and the other girls.
Her relief turned quickly to horror when the officers, about 30 she says, took the girls to several rooms and started shooting video of them in compromising positions. The girls were told the videos would be sent to their families if they didn't do everything they asked
Now Jacinto is well-known human rights activist who has taken her message against human trafficking to Pope Francis at the Vatican and the U.S. Congress in support of Megan's Law, which mandates US authorities share information pertaining to American child sex offenders when these convicts attempt to travel abroad.
"It's so infuriating that this keeps happening," Jacinto told CNN. The reports about the raids in Cancun and Playa del Carmen sound similar to what she lived through herself, she said.
"We need more prevention efforts, more help," she said. "I want all of society not to see this as something normal, to really see this as something that really could happen to one of your children."