SANFORD, N.C. (AP) _ It was an irresistible offer, say relatives of destitute, deaf-mute Mexicans: Come to the glamorous United States and make money.

It turned out to be virtual slavery, say immigration officials who on Friday found 14 deaf adults and three children who they say were obliged to work selling trinkets on the street.

It was the second time this week that such an alleged ring has been uncovered. Last weekend in New York City, authorities found 57 people, most of them unable to hear or speak, who allegedly had been smuggled into the United States to peddle $1 key chains, pencils and other knicknacks.

The North Carolina group said they were reasonably well-treated, said Teodoro Maus, Mexico's consul general in Atlanta.

``They didn't have complaints of beatings, but they were being held captive and were forced to work and to turn over the money and to bring in a minimum of money every day,'' he said.

Maus and Russ Parry, an agent with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said they believed the New York and North Carolina operations were related.

``The more we dig, the bigger it becomes,'' Parry said. ``We believe it's linked directly to New York, in oversight, control, money, bank accounts. You're talking about a very sophisticated operation and a lot of money made preying on deaf-mutes.''

However, INS Deputy Commissioner Chris Sale said in Washington it was premature to suggest a connection.

``It's too early to jump to conclusions,'' added Walter Holton Jr., a U.S. attorney in North Carolina. ``This is sort of a similar situation as the one in New York, but the living conditions were not as terrible as in New York.''

The two brick houses here are well known to neighbors, who said the Mexicans peddled key chains and tiny American flags on streets and outside supermarkets in this town of 21,000, about 40 miles southwest of Raleigh.

Neighbors said the women lived in one house, the men in the other. One described the homes as ``like a depot, a relay station,'' quiet in the daytime and active at night. None knew what went on inside the homes.

Authorities were tipped off by a woman who fled and contacted the Mexican consulate in Detroit, Maus said. She was identified by The New York Times as Gloria Hipolito Hernandez.

Her relatives in Mexico told the Times she had left home last March with a woman named Guadalupe Moises, who talked convincingly of the opportunities that awaited her in the United States.

``It was irresistible,'' said Pedro Hernandez, the woman's brother. But once she left, the family heard nothing from her. They suspected that she was visiting an aunt in Detroit when she went to authorities.

The 17 Mexicans were moved to Charlotte and housed in a hotel. Sale said none will be deported immediately, and hearings will be held if questions arise about their residency status.

No one was immediately charged in North Carolina. Seven Mexicans face charges including smuggling and extortion in the New York City case; the alleged ringleader is still at large.

Mexican consular officials also reported finding six deaf and mute Mexican vendors in Chicago. But a consular official in Chicago said those workers said they were being treated adequately.

The INS has established an anti-exploitation task force to investigate tips from around the country about other operations.