SAVANNAH - A man convicted of acting as a pimp for women forced into prostitution was sentenced to life in federal prison Wednesday for his role in what prosecutors called a sex trafficking ring that traded women like slaves between Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas.
Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez, a Mexican national who operated out of Savannah, was a key figure among 25 defendants indicted in the case last year. A U.S. district judge sentenced him five months after he pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiring with others to engage in sex trafficking.
Prosecutors said Mendez-Hernandez, also known as "El Flaco," and his partners would bring women into the U.S. from Mexico and other countries and force them to have sex with 30 or more men each day for $25 apiece. They built a network that largely catered to Latino immigrants, meaning prostitutes were rotated not just between larger cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte, but also in small farm communities such as Bonaire, Ga.
The indictment against Mendez-Hernandez alleges that he and others transported prostitutes back and forth between South Carolina and Georgia in 2012 by way of Interstates 95 and 26.
Columbia is the only Palmetto State city named in the indictment as a pick-up and drop-off spot where prostitutes were exchanged. At least one such trip involved the transfer of a prostitute to an alleged pimp operating out of Monroe, N.C., the indictment states.
A co-defendant in the case was heard in December 2012 phone calls saying the ring had a variety of young women from Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in its employ as prostitutes, the indictment states.
Coordinators including Mendez-Hernandez would swap cellphone photos of the women to decide which ones they wanted brought to them, prosecutors said.
"They enslaved women, they demeaned them and they dehumanized them," Tania Groover, the lead federal prosecutor in the case, told the judge during a sentencing hearing Wednesday. "... Sometimes they were taken to a crop field. Sometimes the men would just line up and wait for their turn, waiting and watching while everything took place."
Mendez-Hernandez received the harshest sentence of any of the 23 defendants who have pleaded guilty in the case. Two suspects who were charged remain at large.
At least six women accused Mendez-Hernandez of acting as their pimp. They said he would drive them to homes and hotel rooms to have sex with multiple men, then take most of the money they earned. Prosecutors said he earned enough to send $1,500 a week back to his family in Mexico.
Women told authorities they were often beaten, and the sex ring's leaders threatened to harm their families back home if they refused to cooperate. And they said Mendez-Hernandez would make them have sex with dozens of men without breaks.
"You cannot sleep, you cannot eat until you perform at least 40 acts," said a statement from one victim read by prosecutors in court.
Mendez-Hernandez and others were accused of operating the sex trade from 2008 until their arrest in January 2013. And while he pleaded guilty, he also denied threatening or harming the women, who he said traded sex for money voluntarily.
"I didn't force anybody. I didn't hurt anybody," Mendez-Hernandez told the judge. "... I beg forgiveness to all the women who worked for me. I apologize."
His attorney, Jonathan Hunt, asked the judge for a lighter sentence. He said evidence showed at least some of the women entered the U.S. knowing they would be working as prostitutes, and he argued that everyone involved - including the pimps - was struggling to rise above extreme poverty.
"Many of the decisions made were influenced by this poverty and the need to survive," Hunt said.
Judge B. Avant Edenfield not only sentenced Mendez-Hernandez to life in prison but also ordered him to pay $705,000 in restitution to the women who worked as prostitutes for him. The judge acknowledged that it's unlikely that much money will ever be paid out, but he ordered the defendant to make minimum installments of $25 per month.
Despite the harsh penalty, the judge said he was skeptical that the women working as prostitutes were as helpless to resist or escape as they claimed. He noted that women who testified were expected to get visas allowing them to remain in the U.S.
"They want to please you," Edenfield told prosecutors. "Sometimes I wonder if it was staged when on cross examination it was shown they had automobiles, they had cellphones and they apparently had means to return to their home countries. I wonder if they really were vulnerable victims."
Groover said the women had consistently told the same stories since they first spoke with investigators, and they had never been promised visas in exchange for their testimony.
There is no parole in the federal court system. Mendez-Hernandez's best bet for ever being released from prison is to have his sentence reduced on appeal, Hunt said.
The Post and Courier's Glenn Smith contributed to this article.