CHICAGO — The young women, many of them from poor families in Thailand, were promised trips to the United States. They would also receive visas. Life in cities like Chicago would be rosy, they were told, and they would be able to help support their families back home.
But the promises, federal authorities say, came with an enormous toll: The women were required to work as prostitutes in cities all over this country until they could pay off exorbitant “bondage debts,” set as high as $60,000, to the very people who had promised them better lives.
Law enforcement authorities on Thursday announced federal sex-trafficking conspiracy charges against 21 people, part of what they described as one of the most elaborate and extensive sex-trafficking operations they had seen. The operation had gone on for at least eight years, netted tens of millions of dollars, and involved hundreds of women who were shuttled among American cities, sometimes every few weeks, the officials said.
“The women did not have freedom of movement and, until they paid off their bondage debts, were modern-day sex slaves,” an indictment unsealed on Thursday in Federal District Court in Minnesota said, laying out criminal counts against a long list of defendants, including conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, sex trafficking, and conspiracy to engage in money laundering. Gregory Brooker, the acting United States attorney in Minnesota, described the ring as “a multimillion dollar, modern-day organized crime operation.”
According to the eight-count indictment, the operation was intricate for its organization. Among those indicted were the people owed the bondage debts of the women brought from Bangkok. Others who were indicted served as “house bosses” in cities like Austin, Tex., Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, where they used apartments, hotels, houses and massage parlors for prostitution. Still others served as money launderers, putting cash returns into bank accounts, and facilitators, who took care of details like flying the women from city to city.
While still in Thailand, the women were usually told that they would work as prostitutes, the indictment said, but the terms of deals shifted substantially once they arrived in the United States. Threats were made. Bondage debts suddenly skyrocketed. Some women were even told to have plastic surgery to make them more “appealing” to customers, then ordered to reimburse the cost of surgery as part of their ever-growing debt.