Federal agents have dismantled a multi-state sex trafficking ring that victimized young girls. The 29 suspects behind the ring are mostly immigrants from Somalia.
Investigators said the goal of the men was to find girls under the age of 18 and force them into prostitution in exchange for cash or drugs.
"This case is about a group of men bringing young girls -- some as young as 12-years-old -- into this district and prostituting those girls in apartments and hotel rooms in Nashville," said U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin.
The girls were allegedly shuttled from St. Paul, Minn., to places like Columbus, Ohio and Nashville, Tenn., where they were prostituted out of apartments and motels.
While Nashville was a prime location, police said girls in other cities were also targeted.
Law enforcement officials said most of the men involved in the ring are Somali immigrants with ties to gangs like the Somali Mafia and Somali Outlaws. They have been luring young girls into commercial sex trafficking for years.
"The investigation began over two years ago in St. Paul when it was determined that a single criminal organization was involved in numerous crimes which spread across numerous cities and states," Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Amy Hess explained.
The girls were forced to engage in sex acts in hotel rooms, men's bathrooms and other locations.
"In the Somalian community, it's like we said, 'It's taboo,'" said Joy Friedman of Breaking Free, a nonprofit organization that serves women and girls who have been involved in prostitution. "You cannot talk to anybody about it or come out and tell them this is what you've been involved in because then you are shunned by the community."
Officials call it one of the more significant sex trafficking investigations in recent memory.
"It's a sad day, because the road that led us here involved the repeated sexual exploitation of young girls," said John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In addition to prostitution, the men are also charged with theft and credit card fraud. If they are convicted, they could face 15 years to life in prison.
The indictment said the sex trafficking ring had been in operation for 10 years.