NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - U.S. authorities have charged 21 people in connection with a multi-million dollar prostitution racket in which hundreds of Thai women were forced into sexual slavery in major U.S. cities.
The traffickers lured young women from poor backgrounds in Bangkok by painting a “rosy picture” of life in the United States, according to court records.
Once in America, the women were held captive in apartments and hotels where they were forced to work as prostitutes to pay off debts of up to $60,000, U.S. authorities said.
Some were told to undergo breast implant surgery, and the surgery cost was added to their debt, according to prosecutors.
The charges against 10 Thai and 11 U.S. nationals were filed in a Saint Paul, Minnesota, federal court on Thursday. Most of the defendants were arrested a day earlier in U.S. cities from Los Angeles to Chicago.
Some 38 people have been indicted in Minnesota since last year in connection with the global trafficking ring which is believed to have operated since 2009 and made tens of millions of dollars.
The alleged Thai boss was arrested in Belgium last August..
Three others charged last year have since pleaded guilty, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Minnesota said.
“This is a highly complex case that required years of hard work,” Gregory Brooker, acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, said in a statement.
The women were advertised online including on website Backpage.com, which has been hit by lawsuits in recent years over allegations it promotes trafficking in its advertisements.
They were not allowed to leave the properties where they were held unless escorted by a member of the ring.
The captors used violence and threats against the women and also threatened to hurt their families in Thailand if they refused to have sex, authorities said.
The victims, who numbered in the hundreds and spoke little English, were held in at least a dozen U.S. cities including Atlanta, Washington, Seattle and Dallas.
Investigators hunted down the traffickers by tracking the money they pocketed and laundered, authorities said.
“Special agents used their accounting expertise to analyze the complex financial transactions made by these criminals,” said Shea Jones, a special agent in charge of Internal Revenue Service investigations.
“All financial transactions leave a trail,” he said in a statement.
The charges include conspiracy, sex trafficking and money laundering.
Anti-slavery group Polaris says it has received reports of more than 22,000 sex-trafficking cases in the United States over the last decade.
Globally, nearly 21 million people are victims of human trafficking, according to the International Labour Organization. An estimated 4.5 million of them are forced into sex work.
Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Emma Batha. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org