Cancun, Mexico (CNN)It was an unusual scene, especially for two Mexican cities known more for beaches and tourism.
"We want justice!" shouted dozens of people gathered at dawn outside a state courthouse in the beach resort of Cancun on Thursday last week. The crowd, mostly activists, students and human rights attorneys, was pleasantly surprised when their numbers increased by the arrival of members of a bikers' club.
Several hours later, the same protesters showed up at another state courthouse in the nearby beach resort of Playa del Carmen, chanting the same message and adding another one: "No more impunity!"
In both cases, judges would hear evidence about the state's biggest human trafficking raid in years, involving women from as far as Argentina and Germany who were allegedly tricked into working as prostitutes.
An alleged scheme to bring women into Mexico
On the night of July 30, officers under the command of the Quintana Roo's State's Attorney's Office raided two buildings in Cancun and Playa del Carmen. They ultimately detained 13 people, twelve of whom were later arraigned on charges of human trafficking, among others.
According to Quintana Roo state Attorney General Óscar Montes de Oca, the suspects had held dozens of women in captivity, many from foreign countries.
"They advertised as a spa business; but in reality, there were sexual acts happening in those two places where women were being exploited," Montes de Oca told CNN in an interview. Though they advertised separately, the two locations are believed to have been run by the same people, the state's attorney's office said.
Online ads seen by CNN show the raided buildings operated a business offering "the best escorts in Playa del Carmen" with photos of scantily clad women, touted as "available 24/7."
The advertisements ran on the dark web for years, Montes de Oca says, and were not easily found by the average person. It took the work of his office's cyber-crimes unit about a week to find the ads and begin the investigation. Investigators also used surveillance and other investigation methods, according to the attorney general.
Altogether, Montes de Oca says his officers found 21 women between the ages of 21 and 25 who were forced to work at those two places. At the Cancun site, there were two women from Venezuela, two from Mexico, and one each from Argentina, Colombia and Germany, according to the state Attorney General's Office. There were an additional 11 Venezuelan women at the site in Playa del Carmen, two Mexican women and one Colombian woman.
All had been lured by offers of high-paying jobs as personal assistants or spa therapists, Montes de Oca told CNN. "Once here, they would tell them that they had to pay for their transportation, plane tickets, immigration processing and that the way to pay for that was through prostitution. If they refused, they were threatened with physical harm or worse," he said, adding that the traffickers would take victims' passports and other personal identification documents, so that escaping was nearly impossible.
In both cases, judges granted several months for the state and the defense to carry out investigations, with follow-up hearings in the fall. During that time, the 12 suspects must remain in detention.
Human trafficking in Mexico
These cases, in what are supposed to be resort paradises, highlight Mexico's not-so-secret human trafficking issue.
In an eerily similar case in November 2017, 24 foreign women, including ten Venezuelans, were freed during a Mexican Federal Police raid in Toluca, the capital of Mexico state. Like those in Cancun and Playa del Carmen, they had been promised high-paying jobs and traveled to Mexico with tourist visas, before being forced to work as prostitutes once in Mexico under threats of violence.
Many organized crime cartels have branched into human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Mario Hidalgo Garfias, a former Mexico City pimp who was convicted of human trafficking, told CNN in 2015, "You can only sell a drug once, but you can sell a woman countless times."
Figures cited in a 2019 US State Department report show the Mexican government reported identifying 706 victims in 2018, 667 the previous year and 740 in 2016. NGOs say the true number of victims could be much higher.
According to that report, law enforcement officials, NGOs and the UN say organized criminal groups are not only involved in human trafficking, they've got help: In at least 17 of Mexico's 32 states, criminal groups successfully created "alliances with federal, state, and local government officials" to commit trafficking and related crimes, the report says.
For Claudia Lizaldi, a Mexican actress and human rights activist who showed up at the Cancun protest, the time for raising international awareness about