Area Police Try to Combat a Proliferation of Brothels

Montgomery County detectives closed this brothel in Silver Spring last summer. Such establishments cater to Latin American immigrants.
Montgomery County detectives closed this brothel in Silver Spring last summer. Such establishments cater to Latin American immigrants. (Montgomery County Police Department)
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

On one of the coldest nights this winter, an informant walked toward two suspected brothels operating out of garden-style apartments in Wheaton.

In what has become an increasingly common routine, two Montgomery County vice detectives waited in unmarked police vehicles outside the apartment complex near Wheaton Regional Park for the informant to tell them what he saw inside.

"One doorman, one girl," Detective Thomas Stack told his partner, Leland Wiley, on the radio after being briefed by the informant, a recent immigrant from El Salvador who has helped them obtain search warrants for similar brothels. "Thirty dollars for 15 minutes."

Such brothels, law enforcement officials and authorities in human trafficking said, have proliferated quietly in recent years in Washington and other metropolitan areas with large pockets of Hispanic immigrants, many of whom left their spouses in their home countries. They operate in an underworld invisible to most -- a subculture that local and federal authorities have started to unravel only in recent years.

The brothels, which have surfaced in several recent federal indictments, cater exclusively to immigrants from Latin America and charge about $30 for 15 minutes of sex.

Vice detectives in Montgomery said they are prioritizing such cases because the establishments attract violent crime to residential neighborhoods, and many employ women who authorities suspect were trafficked into the country.

In recent years, Montgomery detectives have investigated about two dozen brothels. Other local jurisdictions, such as Fairfax and Prince George's counties, say they have investigated similar brothels, but the problem does not seem to be increasing in those areas.

"Some people say: 'Leave these girls alone. . . . This is a victimless crime. Nobody's getting hurt,' " said Stack, who, with Wiley, has been asked in recent years to speak to Maryland lawmakers and vice detectives along the East Coast about a trend in which they have inadvertently become experts. "But when you look at the whole picture, this is not a victimless crime. You have robberies, and there's human trafficking, and there's the quality-of-life issue."

Stack returned last week to the Wheaton apartments with search warrants. The occupants had moved days before, detectives learned, almost certainly to resume their business in a new location. Investigators found used condoms in garbage cans -- an indication that they were on the right track, but no arrests were made that night.

The case, which was investigated for several weeks, underscores some of the challenges vice detectives face in shutting down the brothels, known as "cantinas" in law enforcement circles.

They are highly profitable, with low overhead and growing client bases, said police and authorities in human trafficking. Owners can move on a whim, and most people who are charged with prostitution face light punishments, police said.

"We could get search warrants every week, arrest people and charge them with misdemeanors," Stack said, noting that police do not have the legal tools to confiscate the brothel owners' assets. "You have to hit them where it hurts the most: the money. They're all doing it for one reason. They're doing it to make money."

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