PROVIDENCE — New women arrived every Monday morning on Barahona Express travel vans, stepping out with their luggage in their hands in a new city they wouldn’t get to explore.
They were led inside the building where they’d stay, temporarily, sometimes a nondescript house in a thickly settled neighborhood, lately a former school under renovation, with mattresses on the floor, numbers over the beds, and men who locked the doors.
Then, they were put to work in a storefront that disguised its real purpose, according to Providence police.
A former smoke shop in Olneyville Square was turned into a shop that sold Santeria products. There were a few candles and religious statues on the sparse shelves, but behind the curtains were beds, where the women waited. Customers who knew what was really being sold paid $40 to the doorman, who gave them colored sticks to give to the women of their choosing.
The sticks were later collected, so they knew how many men the women had been forced to have sex with. The brothel made as much as $5,800 a day, dozens and dozens of men each. It’s unknown how much of the money, if anything, the women were able to keep for themselves.
This was a journey that began at the US-Mexico border, where “coyotes” smuggled the undocumented women from Mexico into the United States. It ended in the shabby storefront in busy Olneyville Square, hidden in plain sight.
For over a year, Providence Detectives George Duarte and Jeffrey Richards watched this suspected sex-trafficking operation, and the details from the investigation they worked on with FBI agents were laid out in affidavits accompanying search warrants filed in District Court on Wednesday.
They arrested three people in late June: Blanca Hernandez, 52 of North Providence; her brother Julio Hernandez, 48, of North Providence; and Carlos Lopez, 57, of Providence were charged with pandering, maintaining a nuisance, and conspiracy, all felonies. (A lawyer for Blanca Hernandez did not respond to a request for comment.)
All three were arraigned in District Court, where no plea was entered, as is customary with felony cases at this level. All three also posted bail.
Lopez also had a hearing on July 27 that was continued to Aug. 23.
The family was already known to police. Blanca Hernandez and her husband were investigated in 2017 for an alleged brothel in a house they owned on Ralph Street; the activity ended when the house was put up for sale, and there were no charges.
But in October 2019, Hernandez’s son, Milton Estrada,; his wife, Mairenya Valdez; Lopez; and two other men were charged in a trafficking investigation at houses in Silver Lake and New Bedford. Police called it organized crime and seized $130,000 and five vehicles. Lopez was out on bail in that case when he was arrested in June.
This is why the detectives believe these suspects are part of a “very organized group” that is profiting from bringing in immigrant women from all parts of the country to work in illegal brothels in Rhode Island and other states. Duarte and Richards, who are part of the FBI’s child exploitation task force, have been investigating human trafficking operations in the city for years, and have seen the patterns in how they operate.
When the neighbors complain and police take notice, the brothels go underground and move to another location, popping up in new places owned by various limited liability corporations that conceal their ownership.
Blanca Hernandez was believed to be running the operation in Olneyville, with her brother Julio, who was followed by FBI agents as he brought some of the women to apartment buildings in New York City. Last month, the police searched Hernandez’s home at 40 High Service Ave. in North Providence and seized laptops, cellphones, paperwork, and more than $4,000 in cash.
These suspects were the “facilitators” of the operation, Duarte said, but not believed to be the traffickers. The investigation is ongoing, as the detectives try to reach further up the chain.
“One [informant] told me this is part of something really, really big,” Duarte said Thursday. “We’re just at the end of the line.”
The investigation began last year, before the pandemic, with community complaints about a parade of men going to the small brick house at 26 Merino St. in the Hartford neighborhood. The detectives and FBI agents began investigating, noticing the travel vans showing up every Monday with new women, and seizing trash bags filled with used condoms.
Then, the house went up for sale and the parade of men ceased. The police learned the operation moved sometime last fall to Olneyville Square, to a store called Botanica La Esperanza at 1911 Westminster St., owned by 1911 Westminster Street LLC.
The women who worked there were living just a few doors away in the old building at 15 Bough St. used by the Center for Individualized Training and Education.
The vans arrived there every Monday, bringing new women, who didn’t emerge from that building until men came to unlock the front door each day and walk with them across Olneyville Square to the store on Westminster Street.
Real-estate developer Mohamed Yousseff Bahra, who owns 15 Bough St., said he had no idea what was going on inside his building — even though he had a worker staying on the first floor — until the police raided last month.
“You live and learn. It’s part of the business, I guess,” said Bahra, who says he owns about a hundred properties in different cities. “Nobody’s perfect. It can happen to anybody.”
Bahra said he met Blanca Hernandez when she sold some gold at his “cash for gold” store at 321 Plainfield St. sometime last year. He said Hernandez told him that she was in the business of buying and selling property. Bahra asked if she was also having trouble finding workers, and she said she had Mexican workers and recommended a plumber to him.
Bahra said the plumber did good work, and later Hernandez asked him for a favor. Bahra said Hernandez told him she was selling her house and needed a place to rent for her and her daughter. He offered a second-floor apartment in his building at 15 Bough St.
“When I put that apartment in, it was only for her and her daughter. Nobody else,” Bahra said. “We don’t know nothing about those people. I never even seen anyone come in.”
Other people did, though. Last December, three men with Bibles and microphones picketed outside the store, shouting warnings in Spanish about the evil going on inside that place. The women then started going in the back door. Sometimes they walked separately, as if they weren’t together.
Bahra said he thought they’d only been in his building a few months, although police said they’d seen the women at Bough Street since last fall.
Bahra said he went into 1911 Westminster St. once to collect the $1,200 rent, because Hernandez was late. He said she told him that a man in the store would have the money for him. “There was nothing in there,” Bahra said. “There was just candles.”
There were two new women at the brothel when the police raided it last month. One had been in the country for six months, the other about a year. They were undocumented and had left their families behind in Mexico. Although they’d been working, they had no money — nearly everything they made went to pay for their meals and shelter, and debts to bring them into the country, Duarte said.
The detectives offered help through Family Service of Rhode Island, Day One, and Sojourner House, which has housing for trafficking victims. In the end, the women wanted to go back to New York, where they had been living, so Peter Pan bus company gave them free transportation, Duarte said.
The detectives hope they don’t end up in the hands of other traffickers.
“Whether it’s fear, force, or coercion, these women are being exploited. Given more opportunities, they may choose a different option,” Duarte said. “It’s hard for them to break away from it, because they don’t know anything else. The pressure is always on them, because of the debt they’re paying back and their families in Mexico.
“It doesn’t matter to me if they are legal or illegal; it’s a human issue,” he added. “No woman should have to be exploited.”