MINNEAPOLIS, MN (NBC) - Authorities have indicted 29 people in a sex trafficking ring allegedly run by Minneapolis-based Somali gangs, an operation that federal authorities say spans three states.
An indictment unsealed Monday in U.S. District Court in Nashville says one of the goals of the gangs was to recruit females under age 18, including some under age 14, and force them into prostitution in exchange for cash, drugs or other items.
Federal investigators say the sex ring operated in Minneapolis, Nashville, and Columbus, Ohio.
"We're very excited today because they're young daughters. It doesn't matter if you're Somali or not, we're all parents. We've kept young girls safe," said St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith.
The indictment outlines numerous instances of prostitution.
In one case that dates back to 2005, a 13 year-old girl was transported from Minneapolis to Columbus and Nashville for sex.
Investigators say the girl was forced to provide sex-for-money for a period of approximately 2 1/2 years.
"Trafficking children for sex is intolerable and the Department of Justice will aggressively enforce trafficking and other laws to eliminate these types of deplorable acts," said U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin. "As shown here today, law enforcement agencies at every level will come together to bring the full force of justice to bear on individuals who choose to profit by victimizing innocent children."
The indictment also details the case involving a 12-year-old Somali girl who was sexually assaulted and forced into a prostitution operation housed in a St. Paul apartment.
That girl was later prostituted by members of the gang to other men in exchange for money, drugs and alcohol.
Cases of two other underage girls, named in the indictment as 'Jane Doe 3 and 4,' were also extensively documented.
Prosecutors say the girls were forced to engage in sex acts in hotel rooms, men's bathrooms, vehicles and other locations.
The men and women indicted in the sex-trafficking ring also face charges involving obstruction of justice, theft of cash, cars and counterfeiting by creating and using fake credit cards.
"The fact of the matter is these are very serious charges in a very serious case. We would like people to hold their judgments," said local Somali Community Advocate Omar Jamal.
If convicted, the suspects face 15 years to life in prison.
The victims also face a sentence.
"This is stuck with them the rest of their life," said Joy Friedman.
Friedman knows the struggles these women face because she's living it.
A survivor of sex-trafficking herself, Friedman now works for Breaking Free, an organization that helps women and girls escape from prostitution.
"It's a healing journey now for each and every one of those victims that they rescued, just like it's a healing journey for me," she said.
Friedman knows indictments, like the one Monday, are a win in the fight, but just one battle in a much bigger war.
"Until we hold the demand side responsible and accountable, this is not going to stop," said Friedman.
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