Better behaved than New Orleans and more demure than Charleston, Savannah takes its place among the great Southern grandes dames as a city of beauty, hospitality, and charm. Laid out with an engineer’s precision, old Savannah is beautiful in the way of all intricately designed things. Spanish moss draped live oaks give this historic town a feeling of mystery and a sense of place. It is a personality unto itself.
Savannah is a city of 136,000 people with a metro area of about 2.5 times that. It is not a small town, but it is not a big city either. A port city, Savannah and Chatham County are home to major manufacturers, and the Army’s Fort Stewart is nearby. Tourism is booming with millions of visitors bringing around $1.5 billion into the local economy each year.
Savannah’s small city status does not make it immune to big city problems, however. Human trafficking, and the suffering it brings, touches this community too.
In 2013, federal, state, and local authorities dismantled an international sex trafficking ring with roots in Mexico and Central America and operations based out of Savannah. Operation Dark Night, as the investigation was called, rescued 12 victims and resulted in the convictions of 23 defendants. The ringleader, Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez, also known as El Flaco, was sentenced to life in prison for exploiting dozens of women.
Members of the sex trafficking ring enticed young women and girls from Mexico and other Latin American countries to come to the United States on the promise of work and prosperity. What the young women found instead was a life of abuse and slavery.
Organization members forced these women to perform sex acts with as many as 50 men a day. They were threatened, beaten, and made to go without food and sleep until they met their quotas. One victim reported being pregnant and lying face down on the floor when a trafficker jumped on her back to force her to have a miscarriage. Other victims reported being forced to become pregnant by organization members so those children could be used to threaten the women into submission. Pimps from Florida to North Carolina traded the women amongst themselves like pieces of property.
This was modern day indentured servitude. The women saw very little of the money they made, if they saw any at all. They were working off a debt that would never be repaid. Meanwhile, the ringleader, Mendez-Hernandez, was making enough money to send $1,500 a week to his family back in Mexico.
Operation Dark Night was the largest sex trafficking investigation prosecuted in the Southern District of Georgia. Multiple organizations at the federal, state, and local level, led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations, cooperated in the investigation. “It is reprehensible that an international sex trafficking organization set up shop within our very own communities,” stated United States Attorney Edward J. Tarver. “This organization destroyed the lives of many victims through fear, violence, and intimidation, all for the love of money. Those responsible will now pay the price in federal prison.”
In addition to sentencing Mendez-Hernandez to life in prison, U.S. District Court Judge B. Avant Edenfield ordered him to pay $705,000 in restitution to the victims.
Many consider Operation Dark Night to be a benchmark in the investigating and sentencing of human traffickers. With all eyes on Atlanta as a known human trafficking hub, many Georgians do not realize that investigations like this one are busting up rings in other areas of the state.
Human trafficking is a statewide problem that requires a statewide solution. At the heart of that solution are our efforts to help human trafficking victims, like the ones freed in Operation Dark Night, to reintegrate into our communities.
The Georgia Legislature has given voters an opportunity to participate in helping child sex trafficking victims put their lives back together. The November ballot will ask voters to decide on several amendments to the state constitution. Amendment 2 on the ballot, the Safe Harbor amendment, will create a fund, and a commission to administer that fund, to help pay for rehabilitation services for domestic minor sex trafficking victims in our state. Victim service providers will be able to access those funds through grants to help victims of trafficking statewide receive the medical, counseling, and education services they need to reintegrate into their communities.
According to ICE Director John Morton, “ICE investigates a wide array of crimes, but the trafficking of women and girls for prostitution is among the most sinister. Few crimes so damage their victims and undermine basic human decency. Our fight against this evil must be relentless, both here and abroad.”
Georgia voters have the opportunity to provide funds to help heal the wounds of trafficking in our youngest victims. I encourage you to vote yes on Amendment 2 to provide Safe Harbor for the children of Georgia.
The Georgia Commission on Women would like to give special thanks to Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols for hosting an Unholy Tour in the Savannah area. Events like this shine a light on the fact that human trafficking is not just a big city problem. It touches communities big and small across our state, and we must all come together to ensure victims get the help they need.
Karla Jacobs is the chair of the Georgia Commission on Women and a member of the CJCC Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force. She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and some fish.