The recently busted eight-state sex-trafficking ring reached deep into South Carolina, perhaps even into the Holy City.
Women from Mexico and South America were kept at a brothel for a week to service more than 25 men a day, then transported to another one, according to federal investigators with Operation Safe Haven. The Oct. 29 sweep shut down brothels in 13 cities, including Columbia, Greenville and Myrtle Beach.
A local victims advocate says it’s not unlikely that some of the women also did business in the Charleston area.
“It is very possible that the girls held in the brothels in Columbia and Myrtle Beach were also trafficked in Charleston,” said Sharon Rikard, who works with victims of sex trafficking through Doors to Freedom in North Charleston. “Nonetheless, girls are trafficked in and throughout our state daily. A couple of the girls we have worked with were trafficked in several counties within our state and into Georgia.”
A two-part series on sex trafficking published in The Post and Courier earlier this year found that many of the women who advertise sex for money in the Charleston area through backpage.com use the same phone numbers in ads for other cities across the Southeast.
The FBI’s Columbia office is reviewing the bust for more South Carolina connections, according to James Brown, special agent in charge of the office.
“Our analysts are reviewing it for more leads here in South Carolina,” he said. “We have been busy across South Carolina working child exploitation matters and human trafficking. We had to cancel one operation due to the flood. Unfortunately, there is plenty of work for everyone.”
Trafficking is different from prostitution when it involves selling sex with minors or using force, fraud or coercion to make women perform, according to state and federal law.
The Oct. 13 indictment filed in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Georgia detailed at least one minor lured into the operation, as well as several other women who were forced into selling themselves for sex.
Investigators didn’t release addresses for most of the brothels, including the one in Columbia. Victims advocates in Columbia said they were aware of several places that might be involved in trafficking. “Let me tell you, it’s not the only brothel in Columbia,” said Bob Healy, a spokesman for Lighthouse for Life, a ministry in Columbia for victims of sex trafficking. “Sex trafficking is rampant in the Midlands.”
Healy praised the bust, which followed thousands of hours of surveillance across eight states, including more than 100 hours from airplanes. But he said more focus needs to be put on the johns, the men who buy sex from women. “Millions of dollars were spent in that one bust,” Healy said. “Within a week those pimps and girls will be replaced. The problem will continue to grow until the Legislature wakes up and starts looking at the demand side.”
Lighthouse is pushing for stiffer penalties for the johns.
“These guys sit around at their computers fueling their imagination, and then they go out and look for ways to fulfill it,” he said. “If you take away the demand, the whole sick enterprise falls apart. They have to focus more closely on the demand side.”
In South Carolina, the penalty for buying sex is a $200 fine or 30 days in jail for the first offense, a $1,000 fine or six months for the second offense, and a $3,000 fine and year in jail for a third offense.
It’s a felony under state law to buy sex from a person under 18, with a fine up to $5,000 and a 10-year prison sentence. Healy pointed to an organization called Demand Abolition, which is working to curb the demand for commercial sex in several cities, including Boston, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle.
The indictment describes how a 14-year-old girl, identified only as FL, was lured into the operation.
“Young females fetched higher prices from customers,” according to the indictment. “At times during the conspiracy, the minor would commit over 25 acts of prostitution in one day and on weekends over 30 acts of prostitution in one day.”
When FL was 14 in 2006, she was enticed to run away from home in Atlanta by a man named Pedro Alberto Lnu, according to the affidavit. He told her they would be lovers and he would give her a better life. Instead, he showed her how she would service men and sent her with drivers around the Southeast. She would be kept in a city for a week, then traded out to another city in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and elsewhere.
Another victim is identified as AM. Sometime around January 2012, a man called Chemo (George Anselmo Canela Alvarado) enticed her to cross the border from Mexico illegally under the false pretenses of a waitressing job, according to the affidavit. She made it to Georgia, where she was taken to Mississippi to meet Chemo. He told her she would be working as a prostitute to pay back her smuggling fee. For the next three years, she was taken around Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and elsewhere to service men, according to the affidavit.
AM was freed in February, when the woman who was driving her between brothels in Louisiana was arrested.
Investigators say they rescued 15 women believed to be victims of force, fraud or coercion, the legal criteria for trafficking. One of the victims was rescued from the brothel in Columbia, according to investigators.
The 29 people who were arrested are all charged with conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of a minor and conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce for purposes of prostitution. Penalties include life in prison and forfeiture of assets connected to the crimes.
At least some of the brothels have some potential value. One was a house on Dogwood Circle in Moultrie, Ga., a golf-course community where homes sell for $300,000, according to the indictment.
The investigation started in Moultrie took 15 months and included 115 flight hours of air surveillance, according to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia, which is prosecuting the case.
The bust was coordinated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.
Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.