Monday, October 24, 2005

The price of freedom

A Denver police crackdown on prostitution reveals women held at Asian massage parlors until they repay debts for being smuggled into the U.S.
By Amy Herdy
Denver Post Staff Writer
DenverPost.com
10/23/2005 01:00:00 AM


Denver police raided 18 Asian massage parlors and arrested 35 people in the past six months in a massive effort to curtail prostitution.

The arrests in what police say is a $20 million a year local industry have also led investigators to believe that the massage parlors are part of an international effort to traffic in women who often are forced into prostitution to pay off those who brought them into the country.

In Denver, no traffickers have been charged, but authorities said some of the women here indicated they had not joined the sex industry willingly.

Arrested were prostitutes, madams and johns on charges including prostitution, solicitation and keeping a place of prostitution, Denver vice Sgt. Mark Fleecs said. Sixteen of the businesses are now closed.

The busts also have revealed stories of human trafficking from women in the massage parlors described by police as too frightened to cooperate.

"We'll continue to be very aggressive in addressing this disturbing problem," said Dave Fisher, division chief of investigations.

Fleecs said his unit will keep the pressure on the illegal operations as well as pursue trafficking cases when they hear about them from the women involved.

The problem, he said, is that the women are not willing to testify because those who control their lives in massage parlors have alleged ties to organized crime, such as the Korean mob.

"They'll give us information on how it works, but when it comes down to convincing them to be involved in a prosecution case, it's tough," said Fleecs, noting that only five of the 16 women identified as workers agreed to talk, and only then in general terms. "They're afraid."

Some of the women contacted by The Denver Post declined to comment. Others could not be reached.

Earlier this year, acting U.S. Attorney Bill Leone said that sex slavery is rare. [I guess he hasn't figured out what's going on yet. - Donna] But he acknowledged that human trafficking is worth more investigation.

Costly road to the U.S.

The route from Korea to a Denver massage parlor is an elaborate one, according to Fleecs. Women are allegedly brought illegally into the U.S. from Korea and other countries by "brokers," men who are members of the mob.

The brokers typically drive them in through Mexico or Canada and then bring the women into San Francisco or Los Angeles, because of the large Asian communities and coastal access in those cities.

Once in the U.S., the brokers transfer the women's smuggling debts - ranging from $10,000 to $30,000 - to a massage parlor employer who holds their passports and other documents while the women live there and work seven days a week.

"If she wants to leave, she can't leave until the money is paid," one massage parlor worker told The Denver Post, which is withholding her name for her protection.

To go anywhere, the women are transported by "taxi drivers," also members of the mob, who act as liaisons between the brokers and the women who run the Asian massage parlors.

Massage parlors are usually converted homes, or small, inconspicuous spaces in strip malls, cheaply and hastily furnished.

Often, the operator takes her workers gambling, pushing them deeper into debt, officials say.

Many times, the women are not told of the nature of their work until after they arrive here.

Of those who do know they will be prostitutes, they are probably victims of human trafficking because they face large debts they cannot pay and they are not free to go, said Olga Trujillo, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant to the government on immigration and trafficking and a former U.S. Department of Justice special crimes director.

"This is a top priority"
Because of a lack of awareness, police officers often don't recognize trafficking when they see it, Trujillo said.

Officials from the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in Denver said they could not comment, citing ongoing investigations. However, both agencies underscored their commitment to the issue.

"This is a top priority of the Department of Justice," said Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office. "The department is working on training and sensitivity issues with law enforcement so they know what to look for and can immediately act."

Denver police and federal officials, including those with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, say there is a connection between a recent major enforcement operation on Asian massage parlors in Los Angeles and San Francisco and the investigation in Denver.

In the California case, a federal grand jury in June indicted 29 people on charges that included conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants, sex trafficking, money- laundering conspiracy and conspiracy to transport female Korean nationals across state lines with the intent to engage in prostitution.

After the arrests there, brokers shuttled dozens of Korean women to Denver, Fleecs said, only to find that police were making prostitution arrests and closing massage parlors throughout the city.

"Nobody wants to come to Denver. They're too scared," a massage parlor worker told The Post.

Like many of the Korean women in the industry, she now works at a massage parlor outside Denver police jurisdiction.

In other Colorado cities, she said, Asian massage parlors are swiftly increasing in number, with a never-ending supply of workers.

A Denver police report provided by Fleecs shows one such case of a young woman who came from Korea by way of Canada.

Afraid to go home as a failure, afraid of the mob, she keeps the reality of her life from those in her homeland who love her.

"My family in Korea think I'm waitress at sushi bar," she said.

The woman bonded out of jail, a driver picked her up, and she disappeared.

Denver Post researchers Barbara Hudson and Barry Osborne contributed to this report.

Staff writer Amy Herdy can be reached at 303-820-1752 or aherdy@denverpost.com.

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