COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Federal authorities reported that a suspected brothel was busted in Columbia, and a possible victim of international sex trafficking was rescued Thursday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement along with Homeland Security Investigations conducted a 13-state operation Thursday dubbed "Operation Safe Haven," targeting a network of illegal brothels that share in trafficking Hispanic females across the southeastern United States.
The investigation was conducted by the Department of Homeland Security Joint Task Force, involving investigators from not only ICE and HSI, but also US Customs and Border Protection, FEMA, and multiple state and local law enforcement agencies.
One location suspected to be a brothel within this network was found here in Columbia, where one suspect and one victim were secured by Federal Agents. Authorities have not identified the exact location or identity of the suspect at this time. The individual was arrested under 18USC 2241 known as The MANN Act, or the White-Slave Traffic Act.
Additional brothel arrests happened in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and North Carolina.
Authorities say traffickers within this organization worked as independent operators to coordinate the movement and delivery of women for illegal sexual purposes.
In a five-count indictment that was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia lodged five counts against 38 suspects in the ring, and at least one victim discovered during the 15-month investigation was identified as a juvenile while she was trafficked.
The initial investigation started in July of 2014 in Savannah, where Special Agents with Homeland Security identified a loosely affiliated organization that coordinated the illegal movement of Hispanic females from Mexico and Central America to destinations across the southeastern U.S. Some were underage teenage girls.
"As previous investigations have shown, and 'Operation Safe Haven' again confirms, the sex trafficking of foreign women in the United States is done by loosely organized criminal networks who have little, if any regard for the women they victimize," said Special Agent in Charge of HSI Atlanta Nick S. Annan. "This investigation identified women victimized through fraud, force and coercion, including underage teens. 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."
Twenty-nine were arrested Thursday, facing charges that include conspiracy to transport a person in interstate commerce for prostitution, or conspiracy to participate in the sex trafficking of a minor.
Nine suspects remain at large, and three customers were also charged with promoting the prostitution operations.
The victims identities are being protected while medical treatment is provided to them all, and Homeland Security is providing all the basic needs for their health and well-being, in addition to further Visa considerations based upon cooperation with the investigations.
"Human sex trafficking is a cancer that we must cut out, and then aggressively fight with all of our resources," said U.S. Attorney Michael Moore. "Sometimes the trafficking victims are kidnapped and forced into sexual servitude through violence. Other times the victims are lured with the promise of a better life, and then held hostage by predators who literally financially imprison them or intimidate them with threats of harm or shame to them or their families. No matter the circumstances that brought these women into sexual servitude, they are victims. And whether the weapons used by the traffickers cause physical, mental or emotional harm, they are predators, and we will track them down no matter the cost."
"This operation highlights exactly what the Secretary charted us to do through these task forces," said Dave Marwell, Director of the Joint Task Force for Investigations. "By strategically applying the broad resources of DHS against a priority investigation, criminal organizations don't stand a chance. We will continue to focus our efforts to ensure we are dismantling criminal organizations that traffic women into the U.S. for the purposes of sexual slavery."
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. Online tips can be submitted at www.ice.gov/tipline.