By Ed Diokno
Hundreds of Thai women were offered a chance at the American dream, instead they lived a nightmare as “sex slaves” in a human trafficking ring exposed and busted by a multi-agency investigation that netted 17 arrests, according to an indictment unsealed this week.
The indictment released in St. Paul, Minnesota, charges 17 members of an international sex trafficking organization with transporting hundreds of women from Thailand and profiting from advertising them for commercial sex throughout the United States. It outlined a sordid but sophisticated operation that exploited the victims.
The charged defendants include 12 Thai nationals and five U.S. ciitizens. Eight of the 17 charged defendants were arrested this week at various locations in Minnesota, California, Illinois, Georgia and Hawaii. One charged defendant was previously arrested in Belgium and four defendants remains at large, said U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.
“Human trafficking is a degrading crime that undermines our nation’s most basic promises of liberty and security,” said Lynch.
“The 17 people charged in this indictment ran a highly sophisticated sex trafficking scheme,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger of the District of Minnesota. “They promised women in Thailand a chance at the American dream, but instead exploited them, coerced them and forced them to live a nightmare. In short, the victims lived like modern day sex slaves.
According to the indictment, which was returned under seal on Sept. 28, 2016, since at least 2009, the criminal organization has recruited and transported hundreds of women, which the organization refers to as “flowers,” from Thailand to various locations across the United States, including Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas and Austin, for purposes of exploiting them for prostitution. Once in the United States, victims were allegedly placed in houses of prostitution where they were forced to work long hours – often all day, every day. As alleged in the indictment, the women were not allowed to leave the prostitution houses unless accompanied by a member of the criminal organization.
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According to allegations in the indictment, which identifies several of the women as victims of human trafficking, the organization often recruited women from impoverished backgrounds who spoke little English. Recruiters exploited these vulnerabilities during the recruitment process, promising the victims access to a better life in the United States in exchange for a debt of between $40,000 and $60,000, which the women were required to pay off through prostitution earnings.
Chabaprai Boonluea, 42, Winder, Georgia
Watcharin Luamseejun, 46, remains at large
Pantilla Rodpholka, 31, Mount Prospect, Illinois
The indictment said “House bosses” owned one or more of the houses where the women were trafficked. House bosses were advertising, scheduling and making money transfers. They made sure a significant portion of the money earned by the victims was routed back to the boss to pay down the bondage debt. The victim was not allowed to keep any money, except for the occasional tip.
Money laundering ‘facilitators’
Noppawan Lerslurchachai, 35, Lomita, California
Khanong Intharathong, 44, Dunwoody, Georgia
Andrew Flanigan, 51, Winder, Georgia
Patcharaporn Saengkham, 41 Los Angeles
Supapon Sonprasit, 31, St. Paul, Minnesota
According to the indictment, other members of the criminal organization served as “facilitators,” primarily responsible for laundering money and directing the movement of victims within the United States.
Thi Vu, 48, Atlanta
Todd Vassey, 54, Lahanina, Hawaii
John Zbracki, 59, Lakeville, Minnesota
Others, according to the indictment, served as “runners” – typically men who were paid, in part, by sex with the victims. Runners accompanied the victims anytime they were permitted to leave a house, and sometimes rented hotel rooms or apartments.
According to the newly released Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, the number of human trafficking victims rescued and traffickers prosecuted nearly doubled in 2016.
The report, conducted by the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. Department of State, found that nearly 78,000 victims were identified in 2016, a notable increase from 2015 when just under 45,000 victims were identified. And as a whole human trafficking is a lucrative industry that around the globe rakes in $150 billion.
Ed Diokno writes a blog :Views From The Edge: news and analysis from an Asian American perspective.