SAVANNAH, Ga. – The leader of an international sex trafficking ring dismantled by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday in Savannah.
Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez, aka "El Flaco," 35, formerly of Mexico, was arrested as part of an HSI investigation dubbed Operation Dark Night, which has resulted in the conviction of 23 defendants and the rescue of 12 victims.
U.S. Attorney Edward J. Tarver stated, "It is reprehensible that an international sex-trafficking organization set up shop within our very own communities. This organization destroyed the lives of many victims through fear, violence and intimidation, all for the love of money. Those responsible will now pay the price in a federal prison."
"While it is extremely satisfying to see these defendants held accountable for their atrocious crimes, the clear victory in this case was the rescue of their victims," said Special Agent in Charge Brock D. Nicholson, who oversees Homeland Security Investigations in Georgia and the Carolinas. "From the testimony they provided in court, these women have begun to rebuild their lives and I applaud their bravery and courage in confronting their abusers and rejecting the roles they were forced into."
According to evidence presented during numerous guilty plea and sentencing hearings, local and federal law enforcement agencies identified and dismantled an international sex trafficking enterprise that spread from Mexico to Savannah, Georgia. Members of the organization enticed women from Mexico, Nicaragua and elsewhere to travel to the United States with false promises of the American Dream. Once inside the United States, the women were threatened and forced to commit acts of prostitution at numerous locations in Savannah and throughout the southeast. Women were forced to engage in sexual activity with as many as 50 people a day. To make sure the women complied, members of the organization threatened the women, used violence against them, and held children hostage in Mexico. Members of the organization would also trade their victims to other members who operated in other states, such as Florida and North and South Carolina.
Each of the 23 defendants arrested in Operation Dark Night have pleaded guilty and been sentenced. Two additional defendants, Eugenio Prieto-Hernandez and Daniel Ribon-Gonzalez, remain fugitives.
Operation Dark Night represents the largest sex-trafficking investigation ever prosecuted in the Southern District of Georgia. The operation was conducted by HSI with assistance from the FBI, ATF, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), CBP Air and Marine Operations, IRS-Criminal Investigations, Coast Guard Investigative Services, Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department, the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office, the Garden City Police Department and the Chatham County Counter Narcotics Team.
Twelve victims were rescued as a part of Operation Dark Night. HSI provides relief to victims of human trafficking by allowing for their continued presence in the United States during criminal proceedings. Victims may also qualify for a T visa, which is issued to victims of human trafficking who have complied with reasonable requests for assistance in investigations and prosecutions. 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. Anonymous calls are welcome.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Tania Groover and Greg Gilluly prosecuted the case on behalf of the United States.