SAVANNAH, Ga. (WCIV) -- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced the results of a lengthy investigation, called Operation Dark Night, into a sex trafficking ring operating in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. The investigation, which was led by ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), led to a takedown yesterday in which authorities made 13 criminal arrests and 44 administrative arrests tied to the investigation, as well as the rescue of as many as 11 victims.
"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."
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia Edward Tarver said, "In what essentially amounts to slavery in the year 2013, the conduct described in the indictment against these defendants is reprehensible. 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."
According to the indictment, Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez, aka El Flaco, conspired with each of the other defendants to transport people across interstate boundaries to engage in prostitution. In addition, Mendez-Hernandez allegedly conspired with at least three others to entice women from Mexico, Nicaragua and elsewhere to travel to the United States with false promises of the American dream. Once inside the United States, these women were allegedly threatened and forced to commit acts of prostitution at numerous locations in Savannah and throughout the Southeast. In one such instance identified in the indictment, 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.
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. Anyone who suspects instances of human trafficking is encouraged to call the HSI tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE (866-347-2423) or the Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Anonymous calls are welcome.
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 Sheriff's Office; the Garden City Police Department; and, the Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics Team. Assistant U.S. Attorney Tania D. Groover and E. Greg Gilluly Jr. are prosecuting the case on behalf of the United States.