Two Madera men, both foreign nationals, were arrested Tuesday afternoon on charges of operating a prostitution ring, according to police Sgt. Robert Salas.
Salas, commander of the Madera police Community Response Unit and Gang Task Force, said a tip from the public lead to the investigation of the men and the surveillance of the apartment where the alleged prostitution activity was being conducted.
"It was a non descipt apartment in the 200 block of west Eighth Street, near H Street. Undercover officers were able to make contact and we determined that prostitution was taking place. We raided the apartment with about six officers about 2:30, and arrested the two men and also two women," Salas said.
Information gathered by officers during the investigation concluded that possibly as many as 100 or more young women may have been used as prostitutes at the apartment over the last six months, Salas said.
"They were smuggled in from Mexico, El Salvador, or other South American countries, and had all been moved through the Madera apartment over the last six months. They didn't dress like or appear to be prostitutes - they looked like everyday, normal young women. Their customers were mainly farm labor workers," he said.
The operations and women are moved frequently to avoid detection and to also prevent them from become too familiar with locals or their surroundings, according to officers.
Police arrested Alejandro Hernandez-Ortiz 30 of Mexico, and Jose Garcia, Jr., 38, reportedly of Guatemala, on charges of felony facilitation of prostitution, criminal conspiracy and more charges would likely be pending as officers dug deeper into the operation, Salas said.
The women were cited and placed into protective custody, he said.
About $2,500 in cash was also seized in the raid. The men were both placed on Immigration and Customs Enforcement hold.
Salas said officers initially had difficulty identifying the men, and he suspected both men were part of a larger sex slavery or human trafficking ring because of their extensive contacts in LA and the well organized nature of the local operation.
"We are also working on ... and hope to charge them with the operation of a sexual slavery operation, but that's a lot tougher case to make," he said.
The men had apparently been living in Madera on or near C Street for some time according, to their statements.
Salas said that these women did not appear to be hardened prostitutes or drug users yet, he said, but the apartment was almost bare except for the two beds, and other tools of the trade...
"One of the women, in her early 20's told us she had been brought into the country to work for the men as a prostitute, kind of like indentured servitude - and that she had no other way to support her family in Mexico. This was a 24/7 operation with the men providing the customers and 'protecting' the women. They were charging about $40 and the women were possibly getting ... maybe $20 of that, but they couldn't really leave the premises," Salas said.
Authorities say sex slavery is a large problem in the US and many of the young women are lured into the industry to pay off their illegal border crossing, or with the false promise of working in housekeeping or restaurants - only to end up being trapped, enslaved and used as prostitutes. Traffickers often threaten and or abuse the girls families through a network of counterparts and enforcers in the foreign countries, if they do not cooperate.
Salas said information from the public about crime is critical in keeping streets and neighborhoods safe.
Anyone with information on criminal activity is asked to report it to the Madera Police Tip Line at 675-4242. Crime Stoppers pays up to a $1,000 reward for a tip leading to an arrest and a conviction in a crime.