TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Multiple women were rescued and a couple is behind bars in “one of the worst trafficking cases” seen in Hillsborough County, authorities said Monday.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister announced eight women— who all appear to be Cuban nationals between the ages of 18 and 24—were rescued, and the suspected traffickers, Amet Ramon Maqueira De La Cal, 35, and Rosalia Leonard Garcia, 29, were detained.
Chronister said his agency received a tip about a Cuban woman who was smuggled into the U.S. through Mexico, and threatened into sex work to pay off a $60,000 “travel debt.”
The tipster said several other women were in the same situation.
The sheriff’s office later got a tip about two people, Maqueira De La Cal and Leonard Garcia, confiscating the women’s documents and cell phones.
“Our detectives quickly acted on this lead by setting up a surveillance operation, which confirmed these disgusting allegations,” Chronister said.
Through the course of the investigation, detectives learned the suspects used a firearm to threaten the victims and their families. The women were forced to work as strippers and prostitutes at various nightclubs in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and some of their services were advertised online, according to the sheriff’s office.
They had to pay for rent and food, and also paid for gas to so their traffickers could get them from one location to the next, Chronister said.
On Wednesday, detectives surveilling one of the apartments saw three victims get into Maqueira De La Cal’s vehicle. They were driven to a gentlemen’s club, then to a gambling establishment.
The next day, detectives conducted surveillance on Leonard Garcia’s SUV and saw her drop off seven women at Tampa’s International Plaza mall, authorities said.
“At this time, detectives used a form of deception to separate a victim they had previously recognized in an online advertisement. While doing so, the victim corroborated the tips and information learned throughout the entirety of the investigation thus far. She also advised all the women traveling in the vehicle, excluding the suspect, were human trafficking victims,” the sheriff’s office said in a press release.
After obtaining a warrant, detectives searched the two properties and found the eighth victim, cash, condoms, a stolen firearm, and different forms of identification, authorities said.
Chronister said Maqueira De La Cal and Leonard Garcia were both arrested and charged with 47 counts in total, including human trafficking, human smuggling, false imprisonment and Racketeering Influencing Corrupt Organization Act (RICO).
Maqueira De La Cal also faces a charge of grand theft with a firearm.
Authorities said the victims are receiving counseling and other resources through Selah Freedom.
“This is one of the worst trafficking cases that I have seen,” Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody said. “In this case, I am extraordinarily proud of the brave, courageous women who lived through hell for months, not knowing if they would be able to get out of that situation.”