Around 200 women were trafficked from Brazil to foreign countries by a gang based in São Paulo, which was uncovered due to a cloned credit card being used to buy flights for the victims.
In late April, Brazilian authorities carried out Operation Harem BR, arresting four people in different cities. One alleged accomplice was detained in Portugal, according to Brazil's official news agency.
The group of traffickers reportedly targeted women, including minors, on social media and contacted them with false job offers from companies selling make-up and beauty products, Globo reported.
But in an unusual twist, the group was only discovered thanks to an earlier operation investigating credit card fraud, during which it was found that a cloned bank card had been used to buy flights for two women to Qatar.
Investigators tracked down the two women who revealed they had been victims of sex trafficking.
Text messages released by police to the media seemed to reveal one of the suspects, Rodrigo Cotait, stating that he could "export women" to the United States, the Middle East, Australia, China, South Korea, New Zealand, Europe and Bolivia.
Authorities also believe the group may have had connections to beauty pageants, allowing it to find potential targets there. On April 29, another suspect, Maria de Fátima Abranches Castro, organizer of a regional beauty pageant, Miss Goiás, was accused of being part of the trafficking ring.
Once contacted, the women were pressured to accept to take trips abroad for a few weeks, where they would be forced into sex work before returning home. A suspect arrested in Foz do Iguaçu, in the southern state of Paraná, was reportedly in charge of trafficking children to Paraguay.
In 2018, Operation Nascostos began investigating a sophisticated ring of fraudsters who cloned credit cards and official documents while posing as Brazilian judges to purchase international flights for third-parts with little scrutiny.
InSight Crime Analysis
While sex trafficking has been a pervasive problem for Brazil, this case presented two interesting details – the fact that some of the women were bound for poorer Latin American countries and that they traveled abroad for weeks at a time but seem to have been able to return home.
As part of a long-term investigation along Brazil's shared border with Argentina and Paraguay, InSight Crime identified several hotspots for sex trafficking. Brazil's border states of Mato Grosso do Sul, Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul are all hubs for sex trafficking but this usually involves women from Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina being brought into Brazil.
However, there have been reports about networks exploiting both Paraguayan and Brazilian minors at the popular tourist town of Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil.
Also, many large-scale sex trafficking rings send women abroad for far longer periods and forcing them to work to clear arbitrary and exorbitant debt owed to their traffickers.
In Venezuela, traffickers have also lured numerous women with fake job offers before sending them on to Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico and beyond, with an increasing number of them having been killed.
A similar case in March 2021 saw a group of traffickers brought down in Uruguay after they sent at least 29 women to Spain, where they were held captive and forced into sex work to pay off travel, room and board debts.