Authorities in Trinidad and Tobago found 65 men and four women living in horrid conditions at a local rehabilitation center.
Reuters reports the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service carried out an October 9 operation, which led to the rescue of the 69 people found in bondage. Police raided the Transformed Life Ministry Rehabilitation Centre in Arouca, located east of Port of Spain. Images coming from the raid showed handcuffs above beds, cages and living quarters in dim-lit areas. Pastor Glen Awong and six others were arrested by police for their role in the human trafficking ring.
Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith told local media the conditions were barbaric. The majority of the victims saved were between 20 to 60 years old. According to reports from police, some of the people rescued were held captive for years and were tortured mercilessly by the church leaders.
"What we believe is that we have cracked what we believe is the biggest human trafficking ring in the country," Griffith told The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian.
"This is a much bigger picture and we have to investigate each and every case. This relates to virtual slavery with what we have seen here. Some of them say they have been tortured," he said. "It is such a bigger picture with profit being made out of this. Family members deliberately sending their loved ones here and extracting the profits from the families."
The rehabilitation center sold itself as a safe haven for drug offenders, the formerly incarcerated and others seeking help. However, family members reportedly sold their loved ones to the church hoping they would cure their relatives of addiction. The Guardian reports some were sold for an estimated $5,000 in Tahitian dollars.
“Transformed Life Ministry’s mission is to serve male ex-prisoners and deportees, by providing safe transitional housing, developmental and rehabilitation program, to promote healthy reintegration into society,” the church's website read.
Andrea De Silva, a Reuters freelance photographer, told the outlet her relative stayed at the center and was brutally mistreated.
“I am familiar with the place because my son was there for a few months. I felt like my son was treated as a prisoner and not a patient,” De Silva told the outlet.
All of those saved were citizens of the country. They were released and taken to local medical facilities to treat various ailments.