By Fabio Teixeira
RIO DE JANEIRO, March 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police in Brazil have dismantled a human trafficking ring that targeted transgender women, offering to cover the cost of surgery then forcing them into prostitution to pay for it, authorities said on Wednesday.
At least 38 transgender women were found in brothels in Ribeirao Preto, a city in Sao Paulo state where the traffickers had lured them with the promise of paying for their transition.
Police are also investigating the deaths of two transgender women. One is thought to have been murdered for not paying her debts and the other died after botched cosmetic surgery in which industrial rather than medical grade silicone was used.
"We face here a classic case of modern slavery, in which the chains are not physical, but invisible," said federal prosecutor Andre Menezes. "We are facing here a case of someone exploiting another person's dreams."
Officers in charge of the operation, which was dubbed "Cinderella", said the victims had been forced into selling sex to pay for the illegal surgery and for the cost of their journey. They were also made to take drugs.
Those who failed to pay back the money suffered physical and emotional abuse, investigators said.
Police have arrested five people and are looking for another four suspected of involvement in human trafficking, keeping workers under slavery-like conditions, pimping and involvement in organized crime.
Another man, also involved with the group, was already under arrest for the suspected murders of two people and the disappearance of three transgender women, one of them underage.
The trafficking ring had been active since at least 2013, police said.
Prostitution is not a crime in Brazil, but exploiting sex workers is. Transgender people are often vulnerable to abuse because the prejudice they face means they often struggle to find work.
"The repulsion people have to these women is too great. They are treated as if they have some contagious disease," prosecutor Cristiane Sbalqueiro told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Sbalqueiro said many transgender women got into debt financing their transition, leaving them with no choice but to sell sex.
Labor inspectors say they have yet to interview the transgender women to establish how many were victims of modern slavery.
"From the elements we gather today we will determine which ones were subjected to debt bondage, and how many were victims of forced labor", said labor inspector Magno Riga during a press conference.
(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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