NEW YORK- Twenty brothels posing as legitimate businesses from Rhode Island to North Carolina were shut down and 31 people were arrested, freeing more than 70 sex workers enslaved by a large human trafficking ring, officials said Wednesday.
The arrests Tuesday capped a 15-month probe that began when a Korean couple who owned and operated a chain of brothels in the New York borough of Queens tried to bribe an undercover New York Police Department detective, said Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Those arrested on federal charges including conspiracy to engage in human trafficking, prostitution and conspiracy to transport illegal aliens included brothel owners and managers, middlemen who worked as transporters and individuals who handled the money.
Myers said the victims who were working in brothels throughout the Northeast were being interviewed by ICE agents at secret non-detention locations, where they were receiving health care, clothing, food and other services as they were being questioned.
She said it was disheartening to hear agents describe stories "of women who were promised a better life and instead held as sex slaves" at brothels posing as massage parlors, health spas and acupuncture clinics in New York, Washington D.C., Connecticut, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland and Rhode Island.
Yet, she said, she was encouraged to know "these same women had been rescued and freed from their shadowy existence and that we could help bring to justice those criminals who enslaved them."
The arrests occurred in Washington D.C., New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland, California and Rhode Island. If convicted, those charged faced maximum sentences of five to 10 years.
Myers said the Queens couple who touched off the probe paid at least $125,000 (euro97,700) to the undercover detective as investigators tapped telephones and exposed an international scheme to smuggle women from Korea to the United States to work in brothels.
The couple was arrested in March along with two police officers who were discovered during the investigation to be accepting bribes, authorities said.
Myers said the United States was seeking to break the backs of the human trafficking rings by increasing the number of investigations of smugglers and traffickers and targeting the financial proceeds of the criminal organizations.
"Some of these criminals look upon people as cargo, just something that must be moved," she said. "But we know that the victims of trafficking and smuggling are not cargo. They are human beings who often have been mentally and physically broken down in every way possible to achieve a mental state in which they can no longer fight against their captors and try to escape."
She said it might take weeks to build enough trust with wary victims to get them to speak to investigators, and she acknowledged that some of the 70 suspected victims might turn out to have known the risks of the brothel trade and chose to work in it anyway.
U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia said the smuggling organization relied on recruiters who went to Korea and found young women eager to live in the United States.
The recruiters then charged the women tens of thousands of dollars (euros) to provide false documentation to enter the country or to smuggle them in, he said.
Once in the United States, the women were placed in brothels along the eastern seaboard, unable to leave the business until their debt was paid, he said.
Identity and travel documents were seized from the women, threats were made that they would be turned over to authorities or that family members would be harmed in Korea if they tried to leave, Garcia said.
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