Human trafficking, organized crime, and lax city codes: A recipe for enduring exploitation PART TWO


A cry for systemic change in our civil and legal systems is underway. The continued pervasive harmful and often deadly control of those in power over those who are vulnerable is at the core of our fury. In the world of human trafficking and illicit massage, we witness the advertising of illegal activity in clear view that no one seems to take action on and instead judge and condemn the victim workers. The reality is that we have a system set up to re-exploit victims and permit these profiteering soul merchants to go on unchecked. (Here is PART ONE)


But first, 5 Additional Realities:

  1. Victims are threatened and coached to protect owners at all costs and told that all US law enforcement agents are out to get them, are corrupt, and/or dangerous

  2. Raids and undercover stings of illicit massage businesses (IMBs) historically target the victim-workers to then arrest or deport them, providing proof for Reality  #1

  3. The IMI is supported primarily by risk-averse buyers typically married or in a relationship and see nothing wrong with the practice of buying sex even though they know it is illegal

  4. The US system is among the easiest in the world to create shell companies and hide corporate income, making it ripe for money laundering and tax evasion

  5. California is #1: CA IMB organized crime network reaches 49 of 50 states

1. Victim control and manipulation  The US criminal and legal system is more likely to add to the trauma and victimization by arresting the victim worker for prostitution or immigration issues rather than offering support. This systemic practice of punishing the victim is all the more egregious when you consider the following: Victims are recruited under false pretenses either in their home country or here in the US, they come to the US with a legal work visa, they speak little to no English, are in financial need, and have little education. When they arrive at the hands of their traffickers, their visas and identification are taken "for safe keeping" and are threatened that arrest and deportation are likely if the police get involved. Add on the debt owed to visa brokers, cultural duty, and the shame of the sex work they have been compelled to do and victims feel trapped. They are moved frequently, every 2-6 weeks or so, by inside runners or drivers to new locations to keep them constantly disoriented. They are on call 15-24 hours a day, often live onsite of establishment and must pay rent to do so. They have no freedom of movement and have to pay out of earned tips for food, condoms, and deplorable living conditions. Additionally, if arrested due to a raid or other tip, they are coached to say that they performed these sex acts willingly despite the fact the manager said not to do so. It is a heartbreaking cycle of repeated exploitation by the illegal and legal systems right here in the US.


2. Raids target the massage worker Victim workers have little reason to trust law enforcement as raids historically target the sex worker and not the buyer or trafficker. Undercover agents will go to a suspected IMB location as a customer and wait for a solicitation. Once offer is confirmed, they then proceed to arrest that individual and any other workers in the establishment. The approach of going after the victim worker and ignoring the buyer demand or illicit business operator is like arresting a battered spouse for allowing violence to go on in the home.  The paradigm shift requires law enforcement to take a victim-centered approach and follow to money instead, insisting that victim advocates and translators accompany any IMB closure, and asking the right questions to increase the chances that the victims will have courage to speak up


3. Risk-Averse Buyers Seeking Safety of the IMB The predominant buyer of sex is the American male, and the high demand for these services allows IMBs to flourish. There is no typical age or race, but most are employed and well-educated. According to an international research project: “In the main they were presentable, polite, with average-to-good social skills. Many were husbands and boyfriends; just over half were either married or in a relationship with a woman.”  One local buyer admitted that he would drop his wife off to get her nails done and he would then go for a quick service of his own.

Additionally It is known among buyers and traffickers that the activity brings minimal consequences even if caught. Legal action is usually reserved for the sex worker, where in many states it is a felony to provide sex services but a misdemeanor to purchase. And based on the reports from the buyers themselves, knowing the crime is not enforced is enough to keep them going back for more. Sex workers go to jail and get a criminal record, buyers get a ticket and traffickers remain at large. Sadly, most communities are queasy about shaming the buyers with public notices of busted activity but not at all troubled about highlighting the mugshots of the victim workers See #1&2 above regarding continued cycle of exploitation…


4. The US makes it easy The primarily Asian cartels operating this billion-dollar enterprise leverage a process that is perfectly legal using shell companies for corporate anonymity and subsequent money laundering. A shell company requires no actual name or beneficial owner to be listed and it becomes a pass-through for profits that go undetected. As indicated in Part One, a cartel will open IMBs and bank accounts under the victim’s name further obfuscating the origin and destination of funds. To add insult to injury, according to research on corporate secrecy, a spa in San Francisco "is registered under Religious Organizations, (and) the business owners can qualify for different tax breaks that normal small businesses do not receive.” Small businesses and legitimate religious organizations should get pretty grumpy about this...


5. California land of the exploited In this case both the land where the exploited outnumber the rest of the nation and where California's cities and legitimate businesses are being exploited by those with nefarious intent or merely turning a blind eye. With 35% of the IMI operating in CA, commercial real estate, local revenues, community health and safety are all impacted by this crime. While some cities and counties in CA are leading the way in imposing effective laws, other cities remain slow to respond, leaving them at risk to additional IMB activity and allowing the exploitation of victims to continue on their watch.


How can IMBs advertise illegal sexual services on known online classified and review sites, posting hours known to be in violation of city codes, and operating in conditions in clear conflict with health and safety regulations, you may be asking yourself? 


That is a fair question with a frustrating answer: Attitudes and resources, in that order. If any civic or legal agency does not know, understand, or acknowledge the realities of human exploitation and organized crime happening in plain site, they will not allocate the necessary resources and will risk becoming a magnet for those looking for places to establish more IMBs. Sadly, those agencies and entities that do know, understand, and acknowledge the reality will still struggle with the resources needed to make an impact under the current scattershot of laws and regulations. Close one here, it opens there, just across jurisdictional boundaries.


Addressing this issue and the vast organized crime network that controls it is clearly daunting, but it begins with a very simple, but not necessarily easy, action: change the system. That means your city, county or state application requirements to demand that businesses come with a beneficial owner, they must reveal in whole or in part any other business interests they have within the jurisdiction, enact consequences for violations, demand they concern themselves with the victims by having resources or immigration services available, to name just a few. 


Demand transparency for the business owners and protection for the victims. Let's change the system of sanctioned financial and human exploitation.


PS As a non-essential high-risk business, massage establishments are still not authorized to be open in many states and counties under the current COVID-19 restrictions. If the sign says open, if you see any customers coming or going, call local code enforcement. It is a matter of public health.


For a deep dive on the topic there is no better resource than the Polaris Project Report on the illicit massage industry



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