A human trafficking network, which forced vulnerable women into sex work across Europe, has been dismantled by Portuguese authorities following a six-month investigation backed by Europol, police said on Tuesday.
The operation, codenamed El Pibe, led to the arrest of eight foreign nationals suspected of trafficking women for sexual exploitation, money laundering and belonging to an organized crime group, said Portugal's Immigration and Border Service SEF.
As part of the operation, which took place in Portugal's northern region, SEF raided 12 homes and 12 vehicles, seizing jewelry, money and false documents. Two money transfer companies and a travel agency were also searched.
SEF said in a statement that the traffickers, operating in Portugal and other European countries, used "persuasion, manipulation and intimidation" to take advantage of around 20 vulnerable women with no financial means or family support.
"The women were used as objects to make money in order to pay debts and 'commissions' imposed by the leader of the criminal group," SEF said.
"They were considered and treated as 'things' or 'objects' which provided huge financial gains."
Now receiving help from a victim support group, the women also suffered from domestic and substance abuse, SEF said, adding that those arrested will appear before a court.
The victims' nationalities were not revealed by authorities.
Sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking, according to the United Nations.