We’ve all had our little giggles about Asian massage parlors, and the inferred notion that some sordid sex acts and “happy endings” may occur behind closed doors. A lark for the local vice squad.
But Rep. Frank Wolf of Vienna stopped by the other day to remind us that the giggles may be inappropriate; that something much more serious goes on behind those closed doors. The parlors help facilitate human sex trafficking of young women, mostly Korean, who come to this country expecting to start a bright new life, and instead spend years in virtual slavery, without control over their own lives, trying to work off massive debt incurred by the supposed cost of immigrating here.
Wolf asked the Polaris Project, a nationally known anti-human trafficking organization, to look into Northern Virginia’s many Asian massage parlors. And by scanning the Internet’s many Web sites and bulletin boards that cater to men discussing which places offer the best sex services, Polaris surmised that roughly 80 massage parlors in our area are offering more than just legal massage. And the parlors are run by well-organized businessmen who navigate the maze of licensing and zoning requirements to maintain storefronts around here.
“Every day,” Wolf said, “innocent women are being held as slaves in these locations.”
Wolf recently sent letters to the U.S. Attorney in Alexandria and the director of the FBI, imploring them to take more action. U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said a local human trafficking task force is making progress. More details on this tragic, growing story are after the jump, and below is a brief video from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime showing how women are lured into this life.
Wolf is co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan group of more than 200 members of Congress working to raise awareness of international human rights issues. He’s also chairman of the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, and he has submitted language in the Justice Department’s funding for next year which says that “DOJ can and must do a better job of investigating and prosecuting these crimes.”
Wolf said he spoke recently with U.S. Attorney MacBride about human trafficking in Northern Virginia, and was unimpressed with the progress made by a local task force. So he wrote letters to MacBride and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, and in both he said the local human trafficking task forces have not been responsive on the issue of massage parlors.
“We want the FBI to make an aggressive effort to shut these places down,” Wolf said in an interview.
Both Wolf and Polaris Project Executive Director Bradley Myles acknowledged that there are legitimate businesses performing massage therapy, which are meeting all rules and regulations and not offering sexual favors.
But when Polaris trolled the Web sites where men, who call themselves ”mongers,” post information about which massage parlors are most likely to provide sexual services, they found more than 80 in Northern Virginia. Polaris did not do any undercover or first-hand investigation, but they feel the circumstantial evidence is there to at least start a vigorous law enforcement probe.
And it isn’t merely the sex acts that trouble the watchdogs. “If you look at the organization it takes to set up these places,” Myles said, “the volume of knowledge to navigate various laws, licensing, zoning, interacting with landlords and with legitimate reporting systems,” these wouldn’t seem to be fly-by-night, small-time operations.
The woman who have fled from these parlors have reported being moved from place to place, or city to city, Myles said. And profits are often shipped back to South Korea, he noted.
“That to me is a very well organized and sophisticated criminal enterprise,” Myles said, “that is multi-jurisdictional, with international relationships.” Those are some key words in the federal law enforcement vocabulary. Myles noted that such operations are often too large for a local police vice squad.
Whether the parlors are connected to each other as parts of a network isn’t known definitively, but “our knowledge is evolving,” Myles said. He said many of the parlors have the physical layout and interior decor, and the same prices for services, and “I think it indicates a deeper connection between these places than we fully realize.”
He noted that Polaris has learned that women are often rotated among four types of locations in a region: a massage parlor, a “hostess club” with drinks and willing waitresses, an escort service and a full-blown brothel. The women don’t have their own transportation but are moved by drivers, indicating a larger organization, and they are often moved to other cities, indicating a network. The women also often don’t have their own place to stay, and either live where they work, or in group homes where their movements are controlled.
Elizabeth Pfenning, a program associate at Polaris, said the women are typically recruited from Southeast Asia with promises of legitimate employment in America, after they agree to pay a fee. That fee can be tens of thousands of dollars, and the women are not free to go elsewhere until they have worked off their debt. Food, lodging and other costs can be charged to their debt in an endless cycle, Pfenning said.
The organizers of these places are not dumb. They are careful not to use juveniles, Myles said, and they try to avoid any violence, so as not to attract attention.
“It’s a modern day form of slavery,” Wolf said.
FBI officials declined to comment. But MacBride noted that his office ”reinvigorated a human trafficking task force last summer.” He said it had been dormant for years, and is now a partnership involving the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Virginia State Police and various local police departments.
MacBride said eight prosecutions had already been completed, and involved not only Asian traffickers but also the MS-13 street gang. He cited the convictions of Sang Bun Surh, who ran the “High Society” or “Tomato” club in Falls Church with illegal aliens from South Korea, of Jose Ciro Juarez-Santamaria, convicted of prostituting a 12-year-old girl, and Taesan Won, who imported Korean women to accompany men in karaoke bars, and perhaps elsewhere.
“We feel like we’re off to a good start,” MacBride said. “We’re doing more. We have active investigations ongoing.” MacBride also has partnered with Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who recently hosted the state’s first-ever training session for local law enforcement and advocacy groups on human trafficking.
“The types of crimes that these traffickers are committing are terrifying and deplorable,” Cuccinelli said in August. “We certainly have our work cut out for us.”
The State of NoVa would be remiss if it didn’t do its own investigating. With clearance from top Post computer monitoring officials, I visited a number of forums where massage parlors are discussed, in Alexandria, Annandale, Chantilly, Fairfax, Herndon, Merrifield, Sterling, Vienna, Woodbridge and others. When a “monger” visits an establishment, he posts a review discussing price paid, type of masseuse, what sexual services were provided, and what tip was paid. The ultimate goal, rarely realized by these men, was for “FS”: Full Service, or Full Sex.
The locations are uniformly bland and low-key, on the outside. One parlor in Merrifield, enthusiastically reviewed by several mongers, was in an apartment-style office complex on Route 50 near Gallows Road, but was not open late last week. Another, in an office park near Fairfax Circle, was open but the woman at the desk said she was only a cleaning lady, and that nothing illegal occurred there.
At an industrial park in Chantilly, another well-reviewed parlor was sandwiched in between body shops and tire stores. A sign on the door said it was on vacation for four weeks. In another office park in Chantilly, near a dentist’s office and a day care center, no one was available to be interviewed, the woman at the front desk said.