Utah raids nab alleged leader in prostitution ring based in Mexico
Trafficking • The Mexican-based ring reportedly used girls as young as 14.
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A joint federal, state and local law enforcement task force on Friday continued to investigate a Mexican-based human trafficking and prostitution ring after having arrested the alleged kingpin for the Utah portion of the operation.

The SECURE Strike Force also arrested two other men and took 10 young women, most of whom were believed to be in the United States illegally and some who were minors, into custody, said Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, which launched the unit two years ago.

SECURE agents made the arrests Thursday during coordinated search-warrant-approved raids on four Salt Lake Valley massage parlors and a private residence.

Included in the net and booked into Salt Lake County jail were the alleged head of the ring, Manuel Zapata-Sanchez, 42, and two purported lieutenants, Luis Daniel Arano-Hernandez, 29, and David Ramirez-Jiminez, 24. All were being held without bail on federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement hold orders.

Zapata-Sanchez was booked on suspicion of two first-degree felony counts of exploiting prostitution; Arano-Hernandez was held on suspicion of second-degree felony identity fraud and forgery, a third-degree felony; and Ramirez-Jiminez was booked on suspicion of two counts of exploiting prostitution, one a second- and another a third-degree felony.

Murphy said agents also confiscated a small amount of illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia.

Specifically, the raids focused on several so-called "reiki" massage parlors, where the girls allegedly performed sex acts for customers in back rooms.

The operation, Murphy added, is part of a larger, international investigation into the illegal sex trade operated by undocumented immigrants.

Kirk Torgensen, chief deputy Utah attorney general, said it was the youth of the girls — some reportedly as young as 14 — which accelerated the investigation toward Thursday's arrests.

"Once we learned that many of the girls being exploited by the ring shut down [Thursday] were juveniles, we felt that we had to put an immediate end to this facet of the investigation," Torgensen said. "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."

He said more arrests may come as the investigation deepens, and perhaps as many as another 10 girls believed in the ring were unaccounted for as of Friday.

remims@sltrib.com