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updated 5/4/2011 7:17:31 PM ET 2011-05-04T23:17:31

Nineteen people have been arrested in connection with a violent Latin American prostitution ring that smuggled women into the U.S. to work in brothels across the Midwest and as far away as Florida and New York, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

Federal, state and local authorities arrested the 19 people in Indiana, Michigan and Illinois on Tuesday on federal racketeering and conspiracy charges, Deputy U.S. Attorney Brad Shepard said during a news conference. Investigators have found no evidence that any of the 19 were in the U.S. legally, he said.

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The ring was known to have operated five brothels catering to Hispanic clients in apartments in Indianapolis and others in Cincinnati; Addison, Ill., and Grand Rapids, Mich. It also is believed to have operated brothels in Fort Wayne and Elkhart, FBI Special Agent Michael Langeman said in a probable cause affidavit.

"It is believed that at least a good portion of the prostitutes utilized by the organization are smuggled into the United States from Mexico and Central America," Langeman wrote in the affidavit.

Shepard said he could not say which other countries the women came from. None were minors.

"The organization advertised their services by distributing business cards which had advertisements and telephone numbers for auto repair or western wear outfitters," U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett said at the news conference. "These business cards were known within the community as contact numbers for arranging appointments. Each of the appointments was referred to as a 'ticket,' and it would cost anywhere from $40 to $50."

Only Hispanic clients were allowed.

The ring was headed by Jose Louis Hernandez-Castilla of Indianapolis, who smuggled the women into the country and arranged their transfers each week among the brothels, Langeman said. Hernandez also provided prostitutes to brothels in Chicago, Louisville, Ky.; Kansas City, Mo.; Tulsa, Okla.; North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and New York.

Hernandez's brothers, Gregorio of Indianapolis and Norberto of Addison, also helped run the ring. Authorities did not provide ages for any of those arrested.

The brothers were known to have guns and use violence to intimidate or discipline other in the rung, Langeman said. An informant told investigators that he was fearful of Jose Louis Hernandez, who was known "to have connections everywhere" and that he and his brothers are "capable of anything," the affidavit said.

Gregorio Hernandez was brought back to Indianapolis from Grand Rapids because he caused too much trouble for his brother "due to his drug use and public displays of violence," Langeman said.

Jose Louis Hernandez told the women they had to work as prostitutes to pay him back for the cost of smuggling them into the U.S., Langeman said.

However, Shepard said investigators have not determined if any women were held against their will. At least one of the 19 was a prostitute herself and had been smuggled back into the U.S. after having been deported.

The investigation began with a Crime Stoppers tip about suspected prostitution to Indianapolis police in December 2007. Hogsett said the ring may have operated as long as 10 years.

A message seeking comment was left with a federal public defender.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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