In his east Charlotte apartment less than a mile from Windsor Park Elementary, Jorge Flores Rojas created a religious shrine to a mystical figure known as the patron saint of death, who is said to protect pimps and other criminals.
Each day, Flores prayed to Santa Muerte, or "Saint Death," joined by the teenage girls whom he forced to have sex with as many as 20 men a day.
Flores, 45, was a notorious operator in a city that has become a center for sex trafficking along the East Coast.
Local and federal authorities are not sure how extensive the Charlotte sex rings have become. They say Flores' ring brought in hundreds of young women each year to work as prostitutes.
Flores was convicted of trafficking in April. But authorities say other pimps in Charlotte continue to prey on young girls from poor countries.
"I don't think we really realized how big this was," says Delbert Richburg, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Office of Investigations in Charlotte. "We're probably just scratching the surface."
The growth is so extensive that this month ICE stationed a team of agents in Charlotte to focus on human trafficking, smuggling and exploitation. Across the Carolinas, immigrant sex rings have been broken up in Monroe, Durham and Columbia.
Jennifer Stuart, a staff attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, says her office has seen a "sharp increase" in trafficking case referrals the last few months.
To read the complete article, visit www.charlotteobserver.com.