Federal authorities announced indictments today against a syndicate of smugglers and pimps that imported hundreds of young Asian women into the United States to work as prostitutes in brothels, where they lived in bondage until their "contracts" were paid off.
The breakup of the smuggling and prostitution ring in Atlanta, where some of the Asians were girls as young as 13, represents a little-noticed trend in immigration scams, whereby women are lured to the United States but forced to work as prostitutes, often as virtual prisoners.
In the last three years, similar gangs have been charged in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the victims have been women from both Asia and Latin America.
An organized crime task force in the U.S. attorney's office in Atlanta announced the indictment today of 13 members of the smuggling ring. They are all foreign nationals from Taiwan, China and Vietnam. Seven have been arrested, and six are still at large. They face charges of illegal importation of aliens for prostitution and could be sentenced to 10 years in prison if convicted of each of four counts.
As Assistant U.S. Attorney Janis Gordon described the allegations, 500 to 1,000 women from China, Thailand, Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam were approached by so-called snakeheads in their home countries and brought to the brothels in Atlanta, where they worked as sex slaves.
The snakeheads had the women submit to "contracts," worth $30,000 to $40,000, whereby the women agreed to work in the United States until the debt was paid off. Gordon said some of the women knew they would work as prostitutes, but others told investigators they thought they would be working in massage parlors or as seamstresses.
After the women made their contracts with the snakeheads, they were turned over to a "jockey," Gordon said, who would smuggle them into the United States and provide documents. Upon arrival in America, they would be delivered to an "agent," who was responsible for delivering them to brothels and making sure the smuggling syndicate collected its money.
Gordon said the women worked as prostitutes not out of saloons or massage parlors or other fronts, but in clandestine brothels in apartments and houses in the Atlanta area, where mattresses were separated from each other by sheets. In part of the ongoing investigation in Atlanta, there was a raid at one house that a federal affidavit described last year as a "prison compound." The house was ringed with barbed wire and fences, there were chained dogs, and gang members served as guards.
Unless they were accompanied by guards, the women were not allowed even to run errands, authorities said.
According to the investigators, the women made about $100 a trick, of which $30 went to the brothel and $70 went to pay off the women's contracts. At that rate, a woman would have to have sex with 428 men before she paid off a $30,000 contract. Gordon met one prostitute who had been working for six months to pay off her contract.
Gordon said the women were shuttled around the country--traveling to other brothels in California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and Washington, D.C.
"We found one brothel grossed $1.5 million over a 2 1/2-year period, so the cost of airplane tickets was minimal to their business," Gordon said.
Investigators said the women were moved about every week or 10 days because their clients, which were limited to a small number of repeat customers, "got tired of the same women," Gordon said. The indictment puts it more delicately: to maintain diversity for the interest and satisfaction of customers.
Gordon said that, based on surveillance, almost all the clients were men of Asian origin. None of the clients was arrested, but prosecutors said they assumed some of them might serve as possible witnesses in any upcoming trials. The women were not arrested either, although they may be deported.