Southeast sex trafficking ring alleged, feds indict 12

Federal agents unveiled this map of their investigation called Operation Dark Night, while announcing a dozen indictments in an alleged Southeast sex trafficking ring, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013.

(CBS/AP) SAVANNAH, Ga. - Federal authorities said Thursday they have uncovered an illegal sex trafficking network that forced women into prostitution and traded them like slaves between cities in Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas.

Twelve people - eight men and four women - were indicted in U.S. District Court in Savannah.

Prosecutors said they had acted as a network of pimps who lured dozens of women to the United States from Mexico and Central America and forced them to work as prostitutes in homes, hotel rooms and mobile home parks, moving them between cities or states at least once a week.

CBS affiliate WTOC reports the federal probe, entitled Operation Dark Night, was led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations and involved several federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

"Some of these women would be forced to perform up to 30 acts of prostitution a day," said Edward Tarver, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia at a news conference in Savannah.

Authorities said they rescued 11 women, most in their 20s and from Mexico and Nicaragua, who were being used as sex slaves. They're getting help while assisting prosecutors with their criminal case, authorities said.

A Jan. 11 indictment, unsealed Friday, charges a Mexican national identified as Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez with conspiring with other suspects to use false promises of profit and prosperity to lure women illegally into the U.S. and use threats to force them into prostitution. The indictment accuses Mendez-Hernandez of telling one woman she would be returned to Mexico if she didn't have sex with at least 25 men each day.

Prosecutors said the sex network largely catered to Latino immigrants, and therefore had prostitutes working not only in larger cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., but also in small farm communities such as Bonaire, Ga.

Those accused of operating the Southeastern prostitution network weren't the only ones arrested. Tarver said 40 additional people were charged across the four states - mostly men caught paying for sex with the prostitutes.