Their friends were their enemies.

The story behind Operation Cattleya and the rescue of 83 victims from human trafficking inside of the Dominican Republic.

Operation Cattleya, an eight-month long investigation of a large human trafficking ring inside of the Dominican Republic, executed the synchronized raid of 14 locations on August 4th, 2022. The work of The Specialized Prosecutor’s Office against the Smuggling of Migrants and Trafficking in Person’s (PETT), The Special Division for the Investigation of Transnational Crimes (DEIDET), The Department of Trafficking in Persons of the National Police (ATU), The International Cooperation of the Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), SWAT, and The Anti-Trafficking Bureau (ATB) – a division of Lantern Rescue’s Counter Human Trafficking Joint Task Force (CHTJTF), and The National Child Protection Task Force (NCPTF) alongside 25 prosecutors, over 200 National Police Officers, and 50+ Investigative Technicians (UIC) proved a well-equipped collaboration throughout the investigative process.

This operation successfully dismantled transnational networks dedicated to the sexual exploitation of victims, revealing the severity of organized crime for trafficking of persons in this region.

In December of 2021, Task Force Leaders of Lantern Rescue (ATB) received a tip through OSINT that women from Columbia were being trafficked in Punta Cana. Through an advance investigation of undercover operators using wire taps, it was discovered that a network was potentially trafficking 60 victims for commercial sex acts.

After connecting with leaders from PETT and SWAT, more agents went undercover to several locations discovering that the network was in the process of delivering more victims from Columbia and Venezuela.

Traffickers inside of this network were using recruiters in both Columbia and Venezuela to find women in vulnerable positions who could be manipulated to come to the Dominican Republic of their own volition to find new opportunities. Many of the victims were in college and looking for ways to supplement the cost of education. With families and medical needs that increased their desperation for work, many felt the pressure of needing to provide no matter the cost. Many of the victims were even found to be mothers, leaving children as young as only months old behind.

Victims often met recruiters through networks of friends who then gave promises of a new life in the Dominican Republic. Many were sold on jobs in tourism including the service industry and escort positions.

With dreams of a way to provide for themselves and their families, victims relented to the networks offers and received a passport and travel requirements. Victims were told they would be in debt for travel expenses amounting up to $4000 that they would then work off upon arrival.

In the true scheme of organized crime, this debt would become further bondage for victims. Traffickers would continue to add to the debt with claims of rent, food, and necessities they purchased for victims. This increased the leverage the network maintained over victims, requiring them to work more and not see profit of their exploitation.

Through the eight months of time to prepare this investigation, Lantern Rescue trained 75 SWAT Special Agents while identifying 11 of the 19 targets through dozens of undercover operations, hundreds of surveillance hours and in collaboration with the National Child Protection Task Force (NCPTF) to digitally exploit their networks and hidden patterns.

Lantern Rescue’s Founder, Mark Smith, stated, “This case from day one has been a primary focus of resources and man hours for us. I’ve not seen a case require such incredible effort by our team, the AG office, TCIU of HSI, DCRIM, SWAT and the National Police. In preparation we have not only worked developing the case but preparing the raiding units. The operation required raiding 14 locations.”

In May of 2022 the first victim escaped the network and took refuge with the care of Lantern’s Task Force and the ATB Victim Service Coordinator. Her testimony shared of the mistreatment victims were undergoing from their traffickers. Her story revealed more than extreme sexual abuse, confirming physical, mental, and emotional abuse as well. The traffickers inside of the network were using means necessary to keep victims present and compliant with demands.

Three other victims escaped before the final raid in August, needing serious medical treatment from Lantern’s team due to extreme violence and forced drug consumption.

On the day of rescue, August 4th, 2022, 14 traffickers were arrested throughout a simultaneous raid of 14 locations recovering 83 total victims. Recovered victims were taken to a secure location under the care of Lantern Rescue’s team alongside the AG Victim Care Coordiantor. Each were given medical evaluations, care items, and continual support.

Victims were all female, aged 17-30. Many were new victims, all being in the Dominican Republic less than a year, demonstrating the scale of operations of traffickers using transnational networks. Those who had been there longer were moved to multiple locations throughout the area.

Customer recruiters inside the network were tasked with finding buyers, both locals and tourists. Buyers would purchase the victims at an hourly rate throughout Punta Cana, Santo Domingo, and Bavaro.

Traffickers would also solicit victims and offer to deliver them to the residence or location of the buyer.

Victims were forced to have sexual relations with clients who chose them from the group or through use of catalogs. Some victims chosen by buyers wishing to exploit them in combination of multiple partners and victims.

Many victims were required to do drugs with their buyers. Drug consumption can be a large component in cases like this, causing victims to be more accommodating to buyers and easier to subdue. Their consumption alongside buyers helped increase profit for their traffickers.

Drugs consumed, including under force, were added to the debt victims were expected to pay off.

Traffickers mobilized victims, subjecting them to degrading and inhumane treatment by not allowing them basic human rights including the ability to consent.

Many of the victims have now been repatriated, given funds to support them in resettlement, and secure ways to contact for future needs or aid.

Several victims are suffering from serious medical issues that occurred during or due to their captivity, including HPV, STIs, Drug dependency, and bleeding/bodily injuries. Many are still experiencing difficulty or danger in returning to their home country with lingering threats and cultural barriers to overcome.

Support and protection is still very essential to each and every surivor of Operation Cattleya. 

I wanted to say thank you, really thank you so much for your support,” stated PETT Victims Service Coordinator, “I can’t say enough thank you for your support in front of this heinous crime. For me it’s truly an honor to say that I was able to collaborate hand to hand with you guys, in the name of The Specialized Prosecutor’s Office against the Smuggling of Migrants and Trafficking in Persons, especially the victim’s services department, 1000 thanks to Lantern’s ATB (Anti Trafficking Burea) and the Counter Human Trafficking Joint Task Force.”