SAVANNAH, Ga. – The last two of 23 men and women accused in a Savannah-based sex trafficking organization pleaded guilty Tuesday. The leader of the organization, which operated in Savannah, other parts of Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Mexico, pleaded guilty Sept. 17.
The investigation, called Operation Dark Night, was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) with assistance from FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Air and Marine Operations, IRS-Criminal Investigations, Coast Guard Investigative Services, Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department, Chatham County Sheriff’s Office, Garden City Police Department and Chatham County Counter Narcotics Team.
Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez, aka "El Flaco," 35, formerly of Mexico, faces a possible life sentence for his role in the sex trafficking organization.
Each of the 23 defendants charged earlier this year in Operation Dark Night have pleaded guilty. 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.
According to evidence presented during numerous guilty pleas, local and federal law enforcement agencies identified and dismantled an international sex trafficking enterprise that spread from Mexico to Savannah. 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 30 to 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 U.S. Attorney Edward Tarver stated, "It is with great pride that I announce the convictions of all of the defendants who were indicted and arrested in connection with Operation Dark Night. This case serves as an example of how local and federal law enforcement can work together to rescue women, save lives and prosecute criminals. In this case, justice was swift, and we expect the punishment to be severe."
"The conviction of the monsters arrested in this heinous sex trafficking scheme marks the end of a life of misery inflicted on these innocent victims of human trafficking. The perpetrators, ranging from street-level customers to international sex traffickers, will be held accountable for their repeated victimization and exploitation of these vulnerable women," said Brock D. Nicholson, special agent in charge, HSI Atlanta. "We are deeply gratified by the significant support we received from our law enforcement partners, non-governmental service organizations and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District Georgia for bringing Operation Dark Night to a successful conclusion."
The 23 defendants who pleaded guilty in Operation Dark Night are:
- Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez, aka "El Flaco," 35, Savannah
- Juan Carlos Pena, 55, Bonaire
- Luisa Capilla-Lancho, aka "Marisol" 32, Savannah
- Jorge Lira-Xochicale, aka "Roger," aka "Juan De Dios," 35, Atlanta
- Mayer Sanchez-Calderon, aka "Maye," 22, Charlotte, N.C.
- Claudio Sanchez-Calderon, aka "Borrego," 43, Charlotte, N.C.
- Omar Peralta-Rodriguez, aka "Erick Peralta," aka "El Negro," 42, Baxley
- Neurby Celenia Diaz, aka "Dona Rosa," 48, Baxley
- Antonio Ubaldo Mendez-Lopez, 46, Naples, Fla.
- Cesar Aguilar-Rebollar, aka "Cesar Nicholas Jaime," 44, Tampa, Fla.
- Sylvia Barrera, 30, Warner Robbins
- David Reyes, 29, Savannah
- Antonio Ramirez-Catalan, aka "Joel," 30, Monroe, N.C.
- Jose Ricardo Vazquez-Garcia, 39, W. Columbia, S.C.
- Marisol Ferreriras, 38, Marietta
- Paresh Patel, 55, Savannah
- Sergio Valazquez Martinez, 35, Savannah
- Fernando Pelayo Silverio, 27, Savannah
- Arturo Salquil- Gomez, 41, Savannah
- Jose Hernandez-Trujillo, 29, Savannah
- Silvstre Aguilar Sayago, aka "Chucky," 27, Savannah
- Rodolfo Hernandez Guiterrez, 44, Savannah
- Alex Martinez Monzon, 36, Savannah
Many of these defendants are awaiting sentencing.
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.