« Uber of Sex Trafficking », Headquartered in California, Gets Busted

Who cares? I’m not sure exactly, since the news didn’t make the headlines (it rarely does). Hard-to-relate victims, everything-but-fascinating criminals, just-trying-to-have-some-fun Western consumers. Not the best ingredients. And, maybe, it isn’t surprising enough if you know that California has become a “hot spot” for human trafficking. Yet, this is all newsworthy…

Last week, a violent prostitution ring operating in 29 states of the US, with international roots, got busted in California by police from Minnesota, where it had a “local operational manager”, authorities reported. The crime ring, which exploited women of Chinese origin, operated from Irvine, in Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles. Three of the four persons arrested and charged with “racketeering, sex trafficking and the promotion of prostitution” reside in this quite affluent area known for its tranquility, its churches and its avenues lined with palm trees. They are now waiting for extradition to Minnesota.

Over two years since February 2015, the six victims identified in the case, aged between 32 and 49, were “brutalized, frequently assaulted, raped, and robbed by customers”, said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, during a press conference. Does it mean that during a quite long period of time, nobody saw anything, no one heard anything ? Maybe, but it doesn’t sound like the most likely scenario. “They were forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day, to bring in the quota of at least 800 dollars per day for their traffickers”, who had confiscated the passport of several victims.

The lead on the investigation, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, described this commercial enterprise as “the Uber of sex trafficking”, referring to the taxi app also based in California. “You could order up sex, a human being, like you order a pizza”, he added in another analogy to fast online services.

The network members indeed used “thousands of advertisements on the website backpage.com” promoting “NURU massages”, the court documents show. “Law enforcement has learned that NURU massages are erotic, skin to skin, body to body massages”. The reality behind those ads was that women were sold for sex for the profit of a coordinated criminal organization. And violent acts, like getting beat and raped, was “just part of the business”, according to one of the defendants.

“Law enforcement has identified additional suspects in connection to this investigation that appear to play a peripheral role in this organizational structure”, say the complaint filed on March 28th.

“Because it’s an ongoing investigation, I can’t really say more than what’s been made public, but it’s probably the first-of-its-kind operation we carry like this”, Dennis Gerhardstein, at the Ramsey County Attorney’s office, told me.

Therefore, it’s likely that there will be more arrests. But according to John Choi, “we’re not going to resolve this issue solely by arresting and prosecuting”. “In fact, none of this happens unless there is a demand”, he stressed. “And how we raise boys and define what is acceptable to men really matters, so we really need to start talking also as a community, about prevention, getting upstream and also changing our culture with buying and selling human beings”.

The sale of human beings seem to be more and more part of the Californian underground economy. The West Coast iconic “land of the free” indeed holds the record of reported human trafficking victims in the United States, by far. 

Whether they’re forced into prostitution or domestic chores or agricultural work, these vulnerable individuals are trapped in complex, often international, networks, who see the potential of the most populous US State. “Unfortunately, the problem is growing, both globally and locally”, says an activist at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), based in Los Angeles. “Unlike drugs or guns, you can sell and resell a person, and the jail sentences are usually lighter, even if that’s changing a bit now”.

Last year, out of 7.572 reported cases, 1.323 were brought in California, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (Texas was second with 670 cases). Among these, 1.045 involved sex trafficking, compared to 148 for labor trafficking.

These statistics should be taken very cautiously, though, the CAST expert warned. First, because the data isn’t gathered in all states according to the same method or definitions; second, because law enforcement and authorities are more focused on sex trafficking nowadays, which makes it look bigger than labor trafficking. “But in reality, labor trafficking represents more than half of the problem”, she says.

The recent police announcements confirm her statements. Since the beginning of the year, several large scale operations led by law enforcement revealed some form of sex trafficking happening in California. Aside from the Minnesota investigation, an operation conducted at the end of January led to the arrest of hundreds of abusers and to the rescue of 28 children and 27 adult victims in the L.A. area, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

In that case, victims were essentially local citizens, some from foster care, but generally from “all walks of life”. This operation coincided with a political intention to fight human trafficking.

Barack Obama indeed addressed the issue by making it the cause of his last month of presidency. And in his steps, Donald Trump, while being quite familiar with accusations of sex abuse himself, also vowed to fight the “epidemic” of human trafficking, a move apparently pushed by his daughter Ivanka. Trump even feels that it is a problem that’s “not talked about enough”. What were the odds…

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