In his east Charlotte apartment less than a mile from Windsor Park Elementary, Jorge Flores Rojas created a religious shrine to a mystical figure known as the patron saint of death, who is said to protect pimps and other criminals.
Each day, Flores prayed to Santa Muerte, or "Saint Death," joined by the teenage girls whom he forced to have sex with as many as 20 men a day.
Flores, 45, was a notorious operator in a city that has become a center for sex trafficking along the East Coast.
Local and federal authorities are not sure how extensive the Charlotte sex rings have become. They say Flores' ring brought in hundreds of young women each year to work as prostitutes.
Flores was convicted of trafficking in April. But authorities say other pimps in Charlotte continue to prey on young girls from poor countries.
"I don't think we really realized how big this was," says Delbert Richburg, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Office of Investigations in Charlotte. "We're probably just scratching the surface."
The growth is so extensive that this month ICE stationed a team of agents in Charlotte to focus on human trafficking, smuggling and exploitation. Across the Carolinas, immigrant sex rings have been broken up in Monroe, Durham and Columbia.
Jennifer Stuart, a staff attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, says her office has seen a "sharp increase" in trafficking case referrals the last few months.
Federal agents say Flores, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, picked up vans full of eight to 10 young women each week outside the McDonald's on West Sugar Creek Road near Interstate 85, where other traffickers had brought them. Others, he smuggled in directly from Latin America.
Two pairs of children's sneakers, pink and green, now sit outside Flores' old apartment off Sharon Amity Road near Eastland Mall. It was one of two apartments where, just a year ago, he hid his teenage victims.
Authorities say he brought customers there, but mostly took the girls to hotels and brothels set up around the city.
He favored teenagers because he could charge more. Clients paid $25 to $30 for 15 minutes with one of the girls. One teenage victim testified in court that, on many occasions, Flores would drive her to a house or an apartment where men would be waiting.
An undercover agent says the teenagers would be made to have sex with up to 100 men a week.
"I have daughters," he says. "... Every time I think of that number, it's something I can't fathom."
Trading in New York, D.C.
To keep a fresh cycle of women in Charlotte, Flores traded with traffickers, including relatives, in Washington, D.C., and New York.
In November 2007, court documents say, he "sold" at least two teenagers from Mexico to Yaneth Martinez, a D.C. madam, who advertised her services with cards offering "Hair Cuts for Men Only."
Martinez worked the girls in the capital city and gave Flores a cut of the profits. A month later, she returned them to him.
Their business relationship worked like this for more than a year, federal authorities said. Then, Flores took a liking to Martinez's teenage daughter.
He asked her if she'd work with him. She refused. Flores didn't give up.
He later called the girl's cell phone and asked her to meet him. He threatened to hurt her mother if she didn't.
She agreed to meet him. She hoped he only wanted to talk, but Flores threw her in his car, authorities said.
"'Sit there, don't say anything. Don't even try to look where we're going,'" agents said he told her.
Martinez tipped off a women's center in Washington that her daughter had been kidnapped. The center contacted authorities.
On Feb. 7, 2008, ICE agents stormed Flores' apartment in Charlotte. He wasn't there, but authorities arrested him a day later in Myrtle Beach. He had brought some of his victims to South Carolina because they had become "overused" in Charlotte, according to court records.
Martinez's daughter spent about three weeks as Flores' captive. Authorities say he raped her repeatedly. He forced her to have sex with dozens of men.
He stuffed her underwear in a small glass vase on his shrine. They prayed together to Santa Muerte.
If you run away, the saint will punish you, he told her.
Charlotte is particularly vulnerable to human trafficking. It's the largest city between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., at the junction of two interstate highways.
In addition, the size of the city's illegal immigrant community allows pimps like Flores to conceal their activities.
As with past waves of immigrants, many of the Latinos are men who left their families to find work. Many victims were lured here with promises of other jobs.
The women are often in the country illegally and dependent on their captors for food and shelter. They're easy to coerce.
"You don't have to have chains or bars to keep somebody under control," said John Price, a special agent with the FBI in Charlotte. "You can do it psychologically and emotionally, and that's typically what traffickers will use. It's a lot cheaper. It's a lot easier to threaten somebody. To beat them up."
Thousands of victims
The FBI estimates that some 18,000 people are trafficked into the United States for sex or forced labor. About a fourth end up in the Southeast; thousands come to the Carolinas.
Most victims of the sex rings are from Latin America, others from Asia and Eastern Europe.
One girl forced into prostitution thought she was coming to North Carolina to be a nanny, says Stuart of Legal Aid, which gives free legal services to low-income people.
Another 14-year-old from Mexico, who thought she was to work at a restaurant, was forced to have sex with men in Greenville, S.C., Columbia and Charlotte.
Martinez's daughter is like any other teenager, said her attorney Christopher Nugent of Washington. She enjoys her iPod and loves to shop. She often draws the dresses she'd like to wear.
In court, she asked if she could answer questions without looking at Flores.
His Charlotte attorney, Lucky Osho, said his client admits arranging women to have sex with men. But he said no one was kidnapped or forced to have sex against her will. Osho said Martinez's daughter was working for Flores in return for some of his women working for Martinez.
"It was part of the business," Osho told the Observer. "It was an exchange."
Flores told authorities that Martinez ran the sex ring.
Martinez's attorney, Lane Williamson, said his client did help Flores' girls find work, but that she did not coerce them. Williamson said Martinez was herself a victim, forced into prostitution earlier in life.
"This is something she was in, from her standpoint, as a matter of necessity," Williamson said. "The (women) were free to go and they did go on their own volition. That was not the case with Flores."
ICE is bringing in more agents and another supervisor to work on its new trafficking team. Victims will not be targeted for arrest or deportation, Special Agent Richburg said. Instead they will be offered special visas in exchange for their help prosecuting traffickers.
In April, Flores pleaded guilty to sex trafficking involving a minor and was sentenced to 24 years, after which he will be deported. He is currently in a federal prison in South Carolina. In July, Martinez pleaded guilty to transporting individuals for prostitution and was sentenced to time served. She will be deported to Honduras.
Martinez's daughter is doing much better, Nugent said. She's living with a foster family. She is getting a special green card for abused or abandoned children.
She wants to go to college and be a lawyer.
Two other girls found with Flores at the time of his arrest were also placed with foster families through a Charlotte women's center, authorities said.
The center arranged medical care and new clothes. ICE agents arranged work permits.
Before the permits arrived, the girls disappeared.
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