U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) arrested 29 people in 13 cities and eight states Thursday on sex trafficking and related charges in a sweeping operation dubbed “Operation Safe Haven” targeting a network of illegal brothels trafficking Hispanic females. In addition to these arrests, HSI identified 15 potential human trafficking victims from brothels across the southeastern United States with assistance from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Joint Task Force – Investigations (JTF-I), ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Federal Emergency Management Administration and multiple state/local law enforcement agencies.

Thursday’s arrests are the result of a 15-month investigation that began in July 2014 by HSI Savannah special agents in Moultrie, Georgia, who identified a loosely affiliated organization that coordinated the illegal movement of Hispanic females from Mexico and Central America across the southern border and then throughout the southeastern United States to brothels in the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas. The traffickers within this organization worked as independent operators to coordinate the movement and delivery of women for illegal sexual purposes.

“As previous investigations have shown, and Operation Safe Haven again confirms, the sex trafficking of foreign women in the United States is done by loosely organized criminal networks who have little, if any regard for the women they victimize,” said Special Agent in Charge of HSI Atlanta Nick S. Annan. “This investigation identified women victimized through fraud, force and coercion, including underage teens. To the criminals behind these illegal enterprises, these women are just pieces of meat used to pull a quick profit and then discarded or passed on to the next trafficker down the line.”

According to a five-count indictment filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, at least one victim identified during the investigation was a juvenile when she was trafficked. Six suspects are charged with conspiracy to participate in the sex trafficking of a minor and 38 suspects are charged with conspiracy to transport a person in interstate commerce for prostitution – nine suspects remain at large after 29 were arrested Thursday. Three of the network’s customers are also charged with promoting the prostitution.

Individuals charged with conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of a minor face up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine. Individuals charged with conspiracy to transport a person in interstate commerce for purposes of prostitution and individuals charged with promoting prostitution face imprisonment up to five years and a $250,000 fine. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The potential victims’ identities are being protected while HSI ensures they receive emergency medical assistance, food and shelter. HSI is fully committed to victim-centered investigations in which the identification, rescue and needs of victims are treated with equal weight as the prosecution of traffickers.

HSI provides relief to victims of human trafficking by allowing for their continued presence in the United States during criminal proceedings and 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.

U.S. Attorney Michael Moore’s office for the Middle District of Georgia is prosecuting the case on behalf of the government.

“Human sex trafficking is a cancer that we must cut out, and then aggressively fight with all of our resources. Sometimes the trafficking victims are kidnapped and forced into sexual servitude through violence. Other times the victims are lured with the promise of a better life, and then held hostage by predators who literally financially imprison them or intimidate them with threats of harm or shame to them or their families. No matter the circumstances that brought these women into sexual servitude, they are victims. And whether the weapons used by the traffickers cause physical, mental or emotional harm, they are predators, and we will track them down no matter the cost. This investigation has been an example of the outstanding cooperation between federal and state agencies. I applaud their efforts. I also want to thank my colleagues, U.S Attorneys George Beck, Joyce Vance and Chris Canova for their partnership and assistance,” said U.S. Attorney Michael Moore.

Operation Safe Haven is the first major investigation supported by the JTF-I since it became fully operational in July 2015. The task force directed significant funding, intelligence, and analytical support from multiple DHS agencies to bolster the special agents investigating this criminal network.

“This operation highlights exactly what the Secretary charted us to do through these task forces,” said Dave Marwell, Director of JTF-I. “By strategically applying the broad resources of DHS against a priority investigation, criminal organizations don’t stand a chance. We will continue to focus our efforts to ensure we are dismantling criminal organizations that traffic women into the U.S. for the purposes of sexual slavery.”

CBP’s Air and Marine Operations (AMO) crews from Miami, New Orleans and Houston flew more than 115 flight hours and launched 38 separate missions in support of the investigation using covert aerial surveillance to track suspects and identify multiple target locations. AMO’s presence greatly increased the situational awareness of agents on the ground.

“Collaboration is crucial in a mission of this caliber,” said Daniel Meagher, Director Air Operations at the Jacksonville, Florida, Air and Marine Branch. “I am proud to say that our unique capabilities contributed to both the success of this mission and to the safety of all those involved.”

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. Online tips can be submitted at Anonymous calls and tips are welcome.