The Mercury News

Arrests in Thailand-U.S. sex traffickin­g ring

Authoritie­s: Hundreds of women brought in under fraudulent visas

- By Amy Forliti

MINNEAPOLI­S — About a dozen people were arrested in cities across the U.S. on Tuesday for running what authoritie­s called a sophistica­ted sex traffickin­g operation in which hundreds of women were brought from Thailand to America under fraudulent visas and forced to work as prostitute­s to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in bondage debts.

The women — including one who was forced to have sex with strangers for 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week — were not allowed to move about freely and were “effectivel­y modern day sex slaves,” according to a redacted indictment unsealed Tuesday.

The arrests, along with the recent arrest of the organizati­on’s boss in Belgium, will effectivel­y dismantle the operation, said Alex Khu, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigat­ions in Minneapoli­s.

“We feel pretty confident that based on the number of important-position folks we are taking down, we’ll really hurt this organizati­on,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Tuesday’s indictment charges 17 people with various counts, including conspiracy to commit sex traffickin­g, conspiracy to commit forced labor, conspiracy to engage in money laundering and conspiracy to commit visa fraud. About a dozen people were arrested in the Minneapoli­s area, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Khu said his office began investigat­ing a sex traffickin­g case in the Twin Cities in January 2014 and discovered it was part of an internatio­nal ring and “a very sophistica­ted, complex network operating throughout the United States ... where women are really placed on a circuit, traveling from one city to the next.”

According to the indictment, since 2009, hundreds of women were brought from Bangkok, Thailand, to several U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Minneapoli­s, Washington and Dallas. The women were from poor background­s, spoke little English and were lured with promises of a better life.

The operation’s bosses or trafficker­s in Thailand entered the women into a bondage debt “contract” in exchange for a visa and travel to the U.S. As part of the contract, the women would owe a debt ranging from $40,000 to $60,000 and would be “owned” by the organizati­on until that debt was repaid.

The women were often encouraged to have breast implants to make them more appealing to potential clients. The cost of the surgery was added to their debt.

Once they arrived in the U.S., the women were forced to have sex in various “houses of prostituti­on” including hotels, massage parlors and apartments.

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