SAVANNAH, Ga. —
Women told authorities they were often beaten and the sex ring's leaders threatened to harm their families back home if they refused to cooperate. And they said Mendez-Hernandez would make them have sex with dozens of men without breaks.
"You cannot sleep, you cannot eat until you perform at least 40 acts," said a statement from one victim read by prosecutors in court.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents leading the investigation said Mendez-Hernandez and others operated the prostitution ring from 2008 until their arrest in January 2013. And while he pleaded guilty, he also denigged threatening or harming the women, saying they traded sex for money voluntarily.
"I didn't force anybody. I didn't hurt anybody," Mendez-Hernandez told the judge. "...I beg forgiveness to all the women who worked for me. I apologize."
His defense attorney, Jonathan Hunt, asked the judge for a lighter sentence. He said evidence showed at least some of the women entered the U.S. knowing they would be working as prostitutes and argued that everyone involved — including the pimps — was struggling to rise above extreme poverty.
"Many of the decisions made were influenced by this poverty and the need to survive," Hunt said.
Judge B. Avant Edenfield not only sentenced Mendez-Hernandez to life in prison but also ordered him to pay $705,000 in restitution to the women who worked as prostitutes for him. The judge acknowledged it's unlikely that much money will ever be paid out, but he ordered the defendant to make minimum installments of $25 per month.
Despite the harsh penalty, the judge said he was somewhat skeptical that the women working as prostitutes were as helpless to resist or escape as they claimed. He noted that women who testified were expected to get visas allowing them to remain in the U.S.