Authorities in Minnesota helped bust a global sex trafficking ring that charges say lured women from Thailand to the U.S. with promises of a better life – only to keep them isolated, forcing them to have sex with strangers day after day to pay off their debt.
Twenty-one people were indicted in the case, which was announced in part by the Minnesota U.S. Attorney's Office Thursday. They're accused of being part of the same trafficking ring that led to 17 people being indicted last fall.
Here's what the indictment accuses these 21 suspects of taking part in:
They ring trafficked women from Thailand to the United States from January of 2009 through May 2017.
Victims often came from poor backgrounds. They were promised a better life in the U.S., and in exchange for travel, would have to pay off a bondage debt of $40,000-$60,000.
Sometimes photos of the women were posted on sites like backdoor.com (which shut down its adult ads section recently). Ring organizers also encouraged some victims to get breast implants – then tacked that bill on to their debt.
The women were sent to cities around the country, including Minneapolis. Once in the U.S. the women would be forced to have sex with strangers for hours on end. The women were kept separated from the outside world, unable to leave unless accompanied.
The operation and Minnesota's involvement
According to the indictment, the suspects charged would work as traffickers, house bosses, money launderers, and facilitators. There was a deliberate, complicated money laundering process – including using funnel accounts to reroute funds, and smuggling the proceeds to Thailand by hiding in in clothing and dolls.
These 21 defendants are tied to a similar case announced last fall – in that one, 17 people were indicted on charges they took part in this sex trafficking ring. Two of them were from Minnesota.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office told GoMN the suspects charged in October include some high-level, mid-level and low-level participants in the ring, but the 21 charged in the latest swoop all acted at higher levels.
The suspects were arrested at locations throughout L.A., San Diego, Dallas, Austin, Houston and Chicago. Authorities seized "hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, cell phones and condoms as well as multiple weapons," the attorney's office says.
None of these suspects are from Minnesota. But the St. Paul Police Department and Anoka County Sheriff's Office were among the law enforcement agencies that investigated. The District of Minnesota also serves as part of the Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team effort. It's an initiative designed to go after large trafficking cases.
Sex trafficking in Minnesota
Human sex trafficking has been a focus of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota because it has multiple “vulnerabilities” – risk factors including an international airport, lots of tourists, a large immigrant population, Fortune 500 companies and more. The attorney’s office works with other organizations to provide services to victims, and says it aggressively prosecutes traffickers and those who purchase sex.
It’s been estimated that 8,000 to 12,000 people are involved in prostitution and/or sex trafficking in Minnesota every day, according to a 2009 report by Advocates for Human Rights. And Minneapolis was previously identified by the FBI as one of 13 U.S. cities with a high incidence rate of child prostitution.
Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline has received reports of 14,588 sex trafficking cases inside the United States, including 265 reported cases and 1,176 calls in Minnesota. As of June 2016, 37 human trafficking cases have been reported this year in the state, the agency says.
The state also has a Safe Harbor Law that went into full effect in 2014. It ensures minors who are sold for sex aren’t viewed as delinquents, but are treated as victims and given assistance through various services.