TRENTON, N.J. — Five Mexican nationals illegally present in the United States pleaded guilty in New Jersey state court Wednesday to operating multiple brothels in Lakewood which were part of a network of brothels in New Jersey, New York and other states. The men trafficked women from Mexico into the United States to work as prostitutes. The guilty pleas follow an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice.
The men were charged last year after a joint investigation by HSI and the Division of Criminal Justice called "Operation No Boundaries."
"Human trafficking cases have been and continue to be a major priority for HSI," said Special Agent in Charge Andrew McLees of HSI Newark. "HSI's ability to reach beyond our borders into foreign nations where human trafficking is initiated and to partner with our state and local authorities creates a formidable strategy that grants law enforcement an advantage over those who deprive victims of their human rights. We are proud to stand next to our law enforcement partners with the State of New Jersey to announce a great success against this despicable crime."
Jose Cruz Romero-Flores, 39, aka "Chato," Felix Rios-Martinez, 48, and Raul Romero-Castillo, 31, each pleaded guilty Wednesday before Superior Court Judge Wendel E. Daniels in Ocean County to second-degree conspiracy to facilitate human trafficking for their roles operating the Lakewood brothels. The prosecution is seeking a five-year prison sentence in state prison for these defendants.
Santos Lazaero Flores-Cruz, 59, of Union City, and Haliro Bueno, 22, of Lakewood, each pleaded guilty to third-degree promoting prostitution. The prosecution is seeking a three-year prison sentence in state prison for these defendants.
The defendants are currently scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 7. All five men face removal from the country by ICE following the completion of their prison sentences.
According to court documents, Romero-Flores operated several Lakewood brothels. At the time the defendants were arrested in July 2013, he was operating a single brothel at 1093 Brook Road in Lakewood. HSI and Attorney General investigators revealed that Romero-Flores and other brothel owners in New Jersey, New York and additional surrounding states worked together as a loose network to bring women into the United States illegally, primarily from Mexico but also from other Latin American countries, and introduce them into a life of prostitution. Many women were tricked into believing they were going to the U.S. to work as house cleaners or babysitters. In other cases, they were coerced into going to the U.S. to work brothels and were ordered to send any money they earned back to Mexico.
Romero-Flores's co-defendants each admitted to watching the brothels, driving women and clients to and from the brothels, and to carrying out other tasks.
In July 2013 HSI and Attorney General investigators executed search warrants for the brothel on Brook Road and Romero-Flores's home, as well as several vehicles, which resulted in the seizure of $5,800 in cash, identification documents including Mexican passports and driver's licenses, cell phones, laptops, and ledgers that listed the names of women who worked in the brothels and the dates they were scheduled to work.
The subsequent investigation revealed that brothel owners in the network paid "coyotes" to smuggle women into the U.S. from Mexico. The women, in many instances, were pressured to repay those who paid for them to be smuggled into the country. Once women were brought into the "circuit," they were moved from brothel to brothel, so clients of each brothel had greater variety. Romero-Flores ordered the women who worked for him to meet quotas. It was not uncommon for women who worked for him to service over 100 clients in a six-day week, from Monday through Saturday. Investigators believe several dozen women worked in the brothels run by Romero-Flores over the course of the investigation.
"This case fits a classic pattern of international sex trafficking, in which deception and coercion are used to enslave women in a horrific life of prostitution in the United States, where they must service up to 40 clients each day," said Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman. "Once the victims are under the sway of the traffickers, they are powerless to escape. We are partnering across all levels of law enforcement to apprehend sex traffickers and rescue their victims from what amounts to modern day slavery."
"We have worked hard not merely to raise awareness of this degrading crime, but also to arrest and prosecute those who commit it," said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. "We will continue to pursue all leads to catch sex traffickers and put them behind bars where they belong."
The New Jersey State Police, New Jersey Human Services Police, Lakewood Police, and the Brick Township Police each provided assistance to the joint HSI and Attorney General investigation.
The public can report suspected instances of human trafficking to HSI's tip line at 866-DHS-2ICE (1-866-347-2423) or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock by investigators.