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MN officials bust 'sophisticated' international sex trafficking ring

Investigators found the operation was based in California, but there were also branches in Minnesota.

Women were beaten, raped and robbed by the people who bought them for sex through an international trafficking ring, authorities said Wednesday, and now four people have been charged in connection with the operation.

The county attorneys from Washington and Ramsey counties announced racketeering, sex trafficking and prostitution charges against four people in Minnesota and California, who they say profited from selling women for sex, a news release says.

“These victims were especially vulnerable, as they were trapped in a foreign country where they barely spoke the language and sold for sex," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said in the release.

According to the charges, the operation trafficked women from China across the U.S. using at least 18,200 ads for sexual services placed on Backpage.com in 29 states over the past two years.

Investigators found the operation was based in California, but there were also branches in Minnesota, including in Oakdale, Cottage Grove, St. Paul, Blaine, Maplewood and St. Louis Park, as well as Fargo, North Dakota.

"It was the Uber of sex trafficking,” Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said at a news conference Wednesday, according to FOX 9. “You could order up sex ... Ordering a girl was like ordering up a pizza.”

The criminal complaints describe what happened to six victims, noting they were required to work 12-14 hours a day and make up to $800 during that time, or they'd be fired. Some had to give up their passports, and many were frequently assaulted, raped and robbed by their customers.

Charges say the victims also had to pay their traffickers for housing, transportation and hotels, and buy their own food.

At a news conference, Choi called it "the most sophisticated human traffic operation" he's ever seen, WCCO reports.

Here's who is charged (the links below contain the detailed charges against each person):

Jiang was arrested in Woodbury back in February, the charges say. And the three women were taken into custody in California on Tuesday and are waiting extradition to Minnesota, the Star Tribune notes.

The investigation is ongoing, with the criminal complaints noting investigators have identified others who are believed to be involved in the operation.

Sex trafficking in Minnesota

Orput says the "enormity" of this criminal enterprise is "ample proof of the pervasive nature of sex and human trafficking here in Minnesota," and he hopes that the charges in this case will make it clear to the public just how big of a problem this is.

The Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force says the demand for commercial sex drives prostitution and human sex trafficking. (Prostitution, under Minnesota state law, means hiring or agreeing to hire someone for sex, while human trafficking means aiding in the prostitution of someone.)

Because prostitution and sex trafficking are so closely related, statistics about the prevalence of these crimes are often lumped together. Estimates show that 8,000 to 12,000 people are involved in prostitution or sex trafficking every day in Minnesota, a 2009 fact sheet from the Advocates of Human Rights shows.

According to the most recent report to the Minnesota Legislature, here's the number of people who were charged with prostitution-related crimes between 2007 and 2013:

Minnesota has a Safe Harbor Law, which protects people under the age of 24 who engage in prostitution – they’re treated as victims instead of criminals.

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