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4 alleged leaders nabbed in sex trafficking ring

“They were commodities to be exploited and sold,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley, who estimated there were between 12 and 14 women involved in the operation.

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“They were commodities to be exploited and sold,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley, who estimated there were between 12 and 14 women involved in the operation.

Attorney General Martha Coakley announced Friday the arrest of four individuals in East Boston and Chelsea accused of running a “sophisticated human trafficking operation.’’ The arrests are the first under the state’s new human trafficking law.

The alleged leaders of the ring, Rafael Henriquez, 39, and his wife, Ramona Carpio Hernandez, 50, were arrested Friday morning in East Boston. Authorities also arrested Milton Lopez-Martinez, 26, in East Boston, and Diego Suarez, 34 in Chelsea. The two men are accused of running the daily operations.

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All four were charged with one count of trafficking in persons for sexual servitude.

Those arrested are accused of running a business that brought women to locations in East Boston and Chelsea, where they were sold for sexual services.

According to Coakley, two to three women would be brought to the locations for a week, housed in “deplorable conditions,’’ and then sold as often as 15 times per day. Others were allegedly transported to johns for house calls, she said.

“They were commodities to be exploited and sold,’’ said Coakley, who estimated that there were between 12 and 14 women used in the operation.

The human trafficking law, which was overwhelmingly approved by state lawmakers in November and took effect in February, could impose life sentences for pimps and others found guilty of trafficking children for sex or forced labor. At the time it was passed, the state was one of only three without laws against human trafficking.

The arrests were the result of a monthlong investigation conducted by the attorney general’s office, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, and Massachusetts State Police working with police in Boston, Lynn, and Chelsea.

Coakley said she believes the ring extended across New England, though she would not elaborate on how the women were recruited or distributed.

Bruce Foucart, the special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Boston, said such sordid tales are all too common.

“Human trafficking occurs every day, even in New England,’’ he said.

Under the new law, women and children sold for sexual trafficking are treated as victims instead of offenders, and illegal immigrant victims may qualify for immigration benefits that could allow them to stay in the United States as long as four years, said Foucart. Some can apply for a T visa, which allows them to stay in the country and work toward full citizenship.

Coakley said the new law allows for heightened penalties, and more related activities are covered under the statute. Previously, she said, the law often focused on the women involved in the business transaction. The new focus is on those buying the service and the ring that is exploiting them.

What made this ring sophisticated, said Coakley, is that it was highly organized and run as a business.

“It isn’t a few people driving around picking people up in a part of town known for that,’’ Coakley said. “This has been going for a period of time, and they certainly have a business model.’’

The suspects will be arraigned Monday in East Boston and Chelsea. Coakley said the charges carry a minimum five-year sentence.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.

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