FORT MYERS, Fla. - A two-year federal investigation into a sex trafficking and prostitution ring from Naples to North Carolina culminated this week with 13 arrests and up to 11 women rescued.
The trafficking operation enticed undocumented women from Mexico, Nicaragua, and other countries to the Southeastern U.S., said John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as he announced the results of "Operation Dark Night" during a press conference Thursday in Savannah, Ga.
It was, as one person involved described to investigators, a "prostitution delivery service" where the women were given daily quotas — upward of 25 clients for at least one of the trafficking victims, according to a complaint filed in federal court against a Collier County man.
U.S. Attorney Edward Tarver accompanied Morton at the press conference.
"In what essentially amounts to slavery in the year 2013, the conduct described in the indictment against these defendants is reprehensible," Tarver said. "This case is a prime example of the United States Attorney's Office and (Homeland Security) recognizing that human trafficking is a cancer facing our society and taking a stand to stop the victimization of women involved in sex trafficking."
The women were rotated weekly from john to john and city to city, as recently as Sunday in Naples, an investigator noted in an affidavit.
One of the women, who worked for an accused pimp in Golden Gate and was the girlfriend of the crime organization's accused ringleader in Georgia, told her boyfriend she serviced 163 clients in the week she was based locally, according to the affidavit.
U.S. marshals arrested Antonio Mendez-Lopez, 45, at his Naples-area home Wednesday. He is being held in a Lee County jail pending extradition to Georgia to face charges.
He and his alleged associates are accused of an array of sex trafficking and prostitution-related offenses, which are being handled by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.
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The business model was shrewd, if grim.
The markets for prostitution in New York and Atlanta were "burnt," one member of the crime ring described, according to an indictment. There were 25 trafficked women from Mexico harbored in Charlotte, N.C., she told her boyfriend. They didn't have papers.
Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez, the man federal agents accuse of running the operation, stepped in with the help of his girlfriend, who is said to be a victim in the case, as well as an accused co-conspirator.
He began pimping the women out in the Savannah area, investigators with the Department of Homeland Security allege.
He and the other johns would trade pictures of the women over cell phones to choose who would get whom, and exchanged them on a weekly basis, according to court documents.
"The traffickers have become very mobile," said Giselle Rodriguez, state outreach coordinator for the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
Law enforcement got wise to the brothel business model that foreign sex traffickers used to favor, so the out-call or "delivery" model emerged "so they keep law enforcement on their toes and continue making money," she explained.As several federal agencies began unraveling the network, investigators closely watched Mendez-Hernandez, known as "El Flaco," or the skinny one. In one 2.5-hour window of surveillance, they reported he drove a woman around east Georgia and into South Carolina, stopping at residences for 10-20 minute periods.
It's common, an investigator noted in an affidavit, "that the drivers will remain in the residence with the prostitute, while the prostitute performs the sexual acts. Often times, the driver will simply be waiting in another room."
In the first week of January, one of those drivers ended up in Tampa, where investigators said Mendez-Lopez picked up Mendez-Hernandez's girlfriend and drove her south down Interstate 75 with Mendez-Lopez at the wheel.
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The pickup truck isn't out of place on the driveway of a single-family home in a residential neighborhood off of Sunshine Boulevard in Golden Gate.
Neither are the hard plastic children's toys on the front porch, where LED lights trim a white double-door. A young couple lives in the main part of the home with their 2-year-old son, renting it from a pair of sisters who own the property.
On the west side of the house, a wood gate obstructs the view into the backyard but opens to give access to an efficiency apartment Mendez-Lopez rented out for $400 a month for the last two years.
He was a good renter, she said. He worked laying tiles, and January was the first time ever he paid a few days late. Health problems kept him from working, he told her.
He helped the home's owners, two sisters in their 60s, fix the gate for two days late last week, the women said.
Law enforcement documented one of the crime ring's women at the house during that time, 20 paces from the gate.
"I never saw that woman there. I thought — I think — that