The women left Mexico and put their lives in the hands of shifty border smugglers just so they could be baby sitters or house cleaners, anything that would pay enough for a nice apartment, a good meal and perhaps some money to send home.
It was a simple dream.
But it soon became a living American nightmare.
State authorities today announced the arrests of six people charged with running several brothels in Lakewood that were part of a human trafficking and sex slave network spanning New Jersey, New York and surrounding states.
Lured into the U.S. by smugglers working for the brothels, authorities said, the women were forced to become prostitutes, swapped between pimps like trading cards and sold to as many as 100 men per week for as a little as $30 each.
“It is hard to comprehend the state of subjugation and degradation in which these victims submitted to such ridiculous and heinous demands,” acting state Attorney General John Hoffman said at a news conference in Trenton.
Hoffman said the Lakewood brothels were run by Jose Cruz Romero-Flores, 38, also known as “Chato,” who made thousands of dollars off the operation and wired much of the profits back to Mexico, where he owned a number of properties.
The women were paid a pittance, he said, and trapped by the fear that they would be arrested for being in the country illegally. Women were also pressured to keep quiet through intimidation or threats of violence, Hoffman said.
“For too long, human trafficking victims have suffered out of sight on the fringes of society,” he said. “It is the antithesis of what we as a society stand for: hope, optimism, self determination and freedom.”
Authorities arrested Romero-Flores on July 11 at his apartment in Lakewood. Four of his associates were arrested the same day, and his girlfriend, Odulia Bedran Trejo, 22, was arrested three days later, authorities said.
Romero-Flores allegedly operated at least three brothels in the town, including one that was active at the time of the arrests, authorities said.
Hoffman said several victims of the sex-slave network were rescued at the time of the arrests and would be provided help through the state, but he declined to say precisely how many were involved or what would happen to them, citing an active and continuing investigation.
The Lakewood brothels were part of a series of loosely linked operations along the East Coast, authorities said, which constituted the “circuit,” where women would be moved from time to time to provide fresh faces for clients.
Sex was offered at the brothels, authorities said, or women could be ordered to go and delivered to a client’s location.
Authorities said they believe several dozen women worked in the Lakewood brothels and estimated hundreds could be part of the entire network. The women would see as many as 100 clients per week, authorities said, and 40 in a single day.
In addition to the sex work, the women were often forced to pay as much as $5,000 to the very smugglers who tricked them.
The state’s investigation, dubbed “Operation No Boundaries,” began in March 2012 and was merged with a similar federal investigation undertaken by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after the two cases crossed paths.
It began under former state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, who created a new Human Trafficking Unit within the state Division of Criminal Justice and ordered law enforcement across the state to bolster trafficking investigations. The charges in this case were the first to be filed by the new unit, Hoffman said.
Romero-Flores was charged with first-degree human trafficking, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. But Hoffman said he was not sure if any of the defendants would serve in prison before being deported if they are convicted.
Romero-Flores also faces charges of second-degree promoting organized street crime and third-degree promoting prostitution. He was being held in Ocean County jail on $1 million bail, and the other five were being held on $100,000 bail.
All six defendants are illegal immigrants and were also being held on federal detainers by immigration authorities. Attorneys for the defendants could not be reached.