(The Center Square) – Officers with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office rescued eight women who were forced into sex trafficking in Florida by smugglers who illegally brought them into the U.S. through the southern border. They also arrested their alleged smuggler and trafficker, Rosalia Leonard Gacia, 29, and Amet Maqueira, 35.
Sheriff Chad Chronister made the announcement on Monday with Attorney General Ashley Moody and other officials. Moody’s Office of Statewide Prosecution charged Gacia and Maqueira with 47 counts of human trafficking and will be prosecuting them.
“These horrific acts of sex trafficking are among the most depraved crimes we have seen in a long time and highlight how criminals are taking advantage of [President Joe] Biden’s open border to advance their illicit trade,” Moody said. “I applaud the swift, courageous actions of Sheriff Chronister’s deputies and ensure my Statewide Prosecutors will hold the traffickers accountable in court for what they did to these eight women.”
The apprehensions occurred after HCSO detectives last week received a tip that a Cuban woman had been smuggled across the southern border and was being forced into sex trafficking as a way to pay her debt for being brought into the U.S. illegally.
According to the tip, “the traffickers made threats against the woman and her family,” the HCSO said in a statement. “And, that if her debt was not immediately repaid, she would be forced to work in the sex trade, until her financial obligation was met.”
Detectives “quickly acted on this lead by setting up surveillance operation, which confirmed these disgusting allegations,” the sheriff’s office said. Their investigation found eight women between the ages of 19 and 24 were being “forced to work as prostitutes, strippers and [perform] other sexual acts.”
A trafficking event at the International Mall was thwarted when HCSO investigators and undercover detectives rescued the women.
According to the investigation, Maqueira illegally smuggled all eight women into the U.S. – an act for which the women were told they each owed $60,000. Their traffickers confiscated their identification and other documents and forced them to live in close quarters under their control. One of the women was able to call a human trafficking hotline, whose operators then notified authorities, enabling HCSO officials to rescue them.
This is the second announcement in two weeks of Moody’s Office of Statewide Prosecution thwarting criminal activity stemming from the southern border. Her office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement recently shut down a major drug trafficking operation run by gang members affiliated with Mexican cartels.
Among the 25 people charged in the scheme, several were SUR-13 (Sureños) gang members who had multiple felony counts related to drug trafficking, violent criminal acts and conspiracy. Many were already incarcerated in prisons in several counties in Florida.
Authorities also seized more than 50 pounds of fentanyl in the operation, enough to kill more than 11 million Floridians, approximately half of Florida’s population.
The operation was announced days after Moody launched a virtual 2022 Human Trafficking Summit last week in partnership with multiple state agencies and organizations. Her office also recently launched a range of initiatives to raise awareness about and report human trafficking, including an Online Safety Toolkit that provides information about red flags, risk factors and tips to stay safe online from trafficking predators.
Florida’s efforts to thwart criminal activity stemming from the southern border continue after Moody has sued the Biden administration over its immigration and border policies and after U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported more than 2.7 million encounters of people illegally entering the U.S. in fiscal 2022.
Total enforcement actions made against foreign nationals illegally entering the U.S., including apprehensions, removals and those being released into the U.S. totaled 2,766,582 between Oct. 1, 2021, and Sept. 30, 2022 – the most ever and more than the individual populations of 15 U.S. states.