Seventeen people, including at least two Minnesotans, have been charged in connection with a "highly sophisticated sex trafficking scheme" that saw hundreds of women transported from Thailand to the United States, and forced to work as "modern day sex slaves" until they paid off expensive debts.
The charges were announced by U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger Wednesday, after the indictment was unsealed the day before. It's the ninth sex trafficking indictment from Luger's office since 2014, but he says it's the first one that targets an entire organization, effectively dismantling it, according to the news release.
Seventeen people (12 Thai nationals and five U.S. nationals) were charged in the indictment with various prostitution and sex trafficking-related charges. Thirteen of the 17 suspects have been arrested – including the boss of the scheme – while four remain at-large.
Luger says these suspects promised women in Thailand the chance for a better life in America, "but instead exploited them, coerced them and forced them to live a nightmare."
According to the indictment:
Since at least 2009, the organization recruited and transported hundreds of women – many from impoverished backgrounds and knew little English – to U.S. cities, including Minneapolis, for a debt of $40,000 to $60,000.
Victims – who the organization referred to as "flowers" – were forced to live in "houses of prostitution," where they worked long hours, often all day and every day. (There were at least seven "houses of prostitution" in the Minneapolis area, and more than a dozen victims were trafficked through Minnesota.)
The majority of the money each victim earned went toward paying off their debt, while the rest went to the boss in charge of the prostitution house they were forced to live in. The victim was allowed to keep very little or none of the money she earned.
Members of the organization also encouraged victims to get breast implants in Thailand to make them "more appealing" to potential buyers in the U.S. – and the cost of the surgery was added to the victim's debt.
The victims were also often charged for the cost of food, travel and housing. And until they paid off their debt, they were "owned" by members of the organization.
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 Safe Harbor Law
And the state has taken several steps to combat sex trafficking, including passing a Safe Harbor Law that aims to ensure minors who are sold for sex aren’t viewed as delinquents, but are treated as victims and given assistance through various services.
It went into full effect in 2014, and was used as a model for federal law that combats sex trafficking. An evaluation of the first year of the law showed 163 minors – ranging in age from 9-17 years old – received services through the program.