Spanish police have broken up a gang that ran a prostitution ring in the southern city of Murcia, where clients were offered girls as young as 14.
The ringleaders used the WhatsApp instant messaging application to contact clients, sending photographs of up to 400 women to their smartphones, then arranging meetings in apartments and small hotels whose owners took a cut from the business.
The ring allegedly recruited teenagers who were advertising their services as baby sitters
The gang had been operating in Murcia since before the summer and was led by three Latin American women, explained Alfonso Navarro, head of the Murcia police force’s Immigration Affairs Brigade, at a press conference earlier this month.
Five other individuals were in charge of securing women and acting as go-betweens with potential clients. Finally, four taxi drivers ferried the women to their appointments.
The ring allegedly recruited women in Murcia nightclubs popular with the Latin American community. They also found Spanish teenagers who were advertising their services as baby sitters or carers for the elderly, and persuaded them to perform massages on men who later demanded sex. Police say that at least 12 teenagers, eight of them Latin American, were working for the gang.
Sudden new wealth
The operation to dismantle the Murcia-based prostitution ring began in August 2014 after an Ecuadorian family contacted the police when their teenage daughter went missing. The parents said they had noticed in recent weeks that their daughter was spending more money than they provided her with. Subsequently, a witness identified the girl as being among those prostituted by the gang.
Speaking at the press conference to announce the operation on January 21, National Police director general Ignacio Cosidó called on families to contact the police if they had any suspicions about their daughters' involvement in prostitution. "I would like to make an offer to the parents of minors who might be the victims of abuse: if you have any suspicions about unusual behavior, or if they suddenly seem to have large amounts of money, or if they have been offered doubtful employment, do not hesitate to contact the police via email or through family services at police stations."
At the same time, Cosidó invited members of the public to report cases of women being coerced into prostitution by calling 900 10 50 90 or sending a confidential e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Cosidó added that fighting coercive prostitution was among the Spanish police's priorities. He said that as of April 2013, the police had arrested 1,450 individuals in 462 operations against sexual exploitation.
Navarro said the first arrests were made in November, with successive raids resulting in the detention of 29 people in Murcia city and outlying areas.
In one documented case, a 17-year-old who had placed an online ad for babysitting services was contacted by the gang to see if she wanted to earn €50 for giving massages. Her client was a retired civil guard officer, now 82, who had allegedly taken Viagra and demanded to have sex with the young woman. The latter fought him off and went to the police to report the abuse.
The gang even provided the girls with alibis to explain to their families how they were earning their money. One father grew suspicious and demanded to meet the child that his daughter was supposedly looking after. One of the ringleaders placed her nephew in a baby stroller and posed as his mother after pretending to bump into the father and daughter on the street.
Police say the clients they arrested for having sex with minors were wealthy, and in some cases, well-known figures in Murcia. They include a local businessman, four lawyers and the retired civil guard.
The detainees’ cellphones contained photographs of minors, along with details about arrangements with the gang, which charged up to €200 for sex with young girls while giving the latter no more than €60.
“The minors represented a profitable bonus for the gang,” said Navarro, adding that there might be additional victims and clients who have yet to be identified.