The horrors of an international criminal conspiracy involving human trafficking and sexual exploitation were outlined Thursday, as three defendants pleaded guilty to interstate prostitution charges.
Allegations of women being forced into prostitution, rape and kidnapping were described as three individuals admitted their part in a conspiracy that focused locally on Aiken and Lexington Counties. Assistant U.S. Attorney Tommie DeWayne Pearson laid out the scheme, which “had been going on for quite some time” with an investigation began in Lexington County after a victim’s story was brought to light.
In September, six individuals were indicted on charges of being part of a criminal conspiracy to transport prostitutes from Georgia to South Carolina. Thursday three individuals were in U.S. District Court in Columbia to plead guilty to this charge, as well as the petty offense of illegal entry into the United States.
Police and federal law enforcement were informed that the victim was recruited for a legitimate job while shopping at a West Columbia Walmart, but then disappeared for a week. She returned after being dumped in a rural area having being beaten, raped, held against her will and forced into prostitution, according to information presented Thursday.
Testimony from the victim led Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents to residences in Monetta and Leesville that were being used as “makeshift brothels,” Pearson said Thursday.
These brothels are where Ruben Cabanas-Torres, 31, Maria Garcia-Moreno, 43, Esteban Acosta-Munoz, 52, and three others were all alleged to be working in the conspiracy that has been in operation since at least January 2010 through the end of July 2012. The three pleaded guilty Thursday and can face up to 10 years in prison.
Maria De Jesus Roque-Llanas, 30, was also indicted, but appeared in court Thursday pleading guilty to illegal entry but having the transporting charge against her dropped.
Moreno, the named defendant in the indictment, was framed as the madame of the operation. She has admitted to making roughly 200 trips to Atlanta, Ga., to pick up prostitutes, and has herself gone back-and-forth from the United States to her homeland of Mexico several times illegally. Moreno would travel to bring in new prostitutes and rotate her workers between Georgia and South Carolina. Torres and Munoz were drivers and bodyguards for the operation, traveling often to rotate women.
When arrests were made in this case, another unnamed party was with the group. That individual was classified as a victim of the conspiracy, though the three who pleaded Thursday deny the use of force or threats to coerce women into their operation.
Munoz and Moreno were formerly married. However, Munoz objected to his ex-wife’s profession, and the two split.