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SALT LAKE CITY — Girls as young as 14 were coerced into performing sex acts for Utah men who patronized the back rooms of three Salt Lake area "massage" parlors in an criminal enterprise top law enforcement likened to the mob.
The arrest of four men — all undocumented immigrants — and the break-up of the sex ring is reflective of a rampant national problem that has not bypassed Utah, said Utah Chief Deputy Attorney General Kirk Torgensen.
"People in Utah need to know it is here," Torgensen said. "Unfortunately, this group had a group of men who were willing to patronize the business and make it successful. It's like any racketeering organization and no different than the mob."
Multiple law enforcement officers and agents on a local, state and federal level participating in the Attorney General's SECURE Strike Force hit three massage parlors this week and served a search warrant at a home in the Salt Lake Valley area. The parlors operated in Salt Lake City, Millcreek and South Salt Lake, Torgensen said.
Agents arrested Luis Daniel Arano-Hernandez, 29, Manuel Zapata-Sanchez, 42, David Ramirez-Jiminez, 24, and one man who has yet to be identified. They were each booked for investigation of exploiting prostitution and on an immigration hold. Arano-Hernandez was also booked for investigation of identity fraud and forgery.
Agents also detained 10 females, including minors, several of whom are undocumented aliens of undetermined identity.
Torgensen said that the task force had been gathering information about these criminal enterprises for about a year before the arrests were made.
Torgensen noted that while some of the females were mature women engaging in prostitution and well aware of the risks, others were young girls coerced into participating with the threat of deportation.
"These girls are victims of the men who paid them for sex, but also victims of the illegal aliens who exploited them in the sex trade," Torgensen said.
The sex trafficking strike force was re-established a couple of months ago and is planning on meeting monthly to ferret out additional illegal activity, Torgensen said, noting information will be pursued aggressively to stamp out such practices.
"People who come to our state, in this instance illegally, and set up a business based on a complete criminal model — if they are going to come here and do that, we are going to come after them and they will pay a hefty price," he said.
He added that the women's illegal immigration status was used as a point of coercion by those heading the enterprise.
"These folks heading up this criminal enterprise use that (status) and say, ‘look, if you don't do everything we tell you to do, we'll turn you over to immigration, you'll be deported,' " Torgensen said. "These young women are like everyone else; they're trying to earn a living for themselves and their family. And so, from that aspect, there's overt coercion involved."
What is really troubling, he emphasized, is that such a business can exist here.
"These men are willing to go out and are willing to engage in this activity," Torgensen said. "If there was not this willingness to do it, there would not be a market for it."
Omar Carbajal worked next door to one of the massage parlors and he said that most of the repeat clients were older, upper class men. He said the female employees wore short skirts and tight clothes, making him wonder what really went on behind the doors of the neighboring business.
"It's interesting that you really never know people, you just kind of know one side of them," Carbajal said.
Agents are currently withholding the names of patrons of the massage parlors pending further charges.
Carbajal said the women he saw didn't appear to be underage or unhappy and that the owners were friendly, good men to him.
Torgensen said deporting the accused men and women is not the appropriate punishment, in this case.
"This is not going to be a catch and release. They've committed serious crimes. They need to be prosecuted and convicted and do serious time here, I hope," Torgensen said.
Contributing: Sandra Yi and Roger Cary