Prostitution is big business
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Mon Dec 18 14:04:31 MST 2000
In These Times, January 8, 2001
Slaves of Chicago, by Charity Crouse
This city has become the focus of growing investigation into the sex
trafficking of foreign women and girls--what the CIA calls a "modern-day
form of slavery" that yields $7 billion a year in profits.
In October, Chicago Police began investigating prostitution in the
Chinatown neighborhood. Officers called eight massage parlors advertising
in a local publication and found that all of them had women working as
prostitutes. After further investigation, officers learned the women had
been brought to Chicago from rural China, after being promised high-paying
jobs in America. Upon arrival, the women were forced into prostitution in
order to pay off their $60,000 "travel fee." The owners of two parlors were
arrested for soliciting prostitution and several of the women now languish
in custody as law enforcement officials and the Immigration and
Naturalization Service (INS) decide their fate.
The Chinatown case comes on the heels of a Chicago trial that yielded the
first conviction for trafficking in women and girls in nearly two decades.
That case began in 1995, when Alexander Mishulovich and his associates
approached five young women on the streets of Riga, Latvia with flattery
and an offer of employment in the United States. While the average Latvian
makes $200 to $350 a month, Mishulovich promised each of the women more
than $60,000 a year. All they had to do was dance in "upscale" nightclubs
completely clothed, lie at the embassy about their purpose for traveling to
the United States, and hand over half of their earnings until they paid off
their transportation debts.
The women jumped at the opportunity, but soon discovered the offer that
sounded too good to be true was just that. When they arrived in Chicago in
November 1997, they were told they would be dancing topless. Their
identification papers were taken and they were required to give all but $20
of the $200 to $600 they made nightly to Mishulovich. "He inflated the
costs and kept building their debt," explains FBI Special Agent Michael E.
Brown. "He told them he needed the money to pay living expenses and bribes
to police and politicians."
The women were not allowed to leave the one-bedroom apartment Mishulovich
had rented in suburban Mt. Prospect, Illinois, except to work at various
strip clubs, including the Admiral Theater in Chicago and the Skybox in
Harvey, Illinois. They were physically beaten and sexually abused.
Such treatment continued until June 1998, when FBI agents arrested four of
Mishulovich's associates after following leads from U.S. Embassy officials
in Latvia. Mishulovich and the others were indicted for a variety of
offenses, including conspiracy to commit peonage, fraud and obstruction of
justice. Four men were convicted and currently await sentencing;
Mishulovich fled the country and remains a fugitive. All of the women were
deported to Latvia.
The women in Chicago are victims of a harrowing global trend. According to
the United Nations, trafficking in women and girls is expected to surpass
trafficking in drugs and guns as the world's leading illegal industry in a
few years. "Lives Together, Worlds Apart," a report released by the U.N.
Population Fund in September, puts the number of women trafficked around
the world at more than 4 million annually--half are girls between the ages
of 5 and 15.
Operations similar to the ones in Chicago have been uncovered all over the
United States, which receives as many as 50,000 trafficking victims a year,
according to the CIA. More than 30 women and girls from Mexico were
trafficked into Florida and the Carolinas between 1996 and 1998 after being
promised jobs as domestic servants. As many as 10 women were taken from the
Czech Republic to New York in 1998 under the guise of working secretarial
jobs. In 1995, 70 Thai women were lured to various U.S. cities with
promises of high-paying employment. In all of these cases, the women were
forced into prostitution. Sometimes, as with the women from Mexico, they
were given no hope for emancipation. In other cases, women were promised
freedom once they "worked off" their debts; the women from Thailand were
offered release once they had sex with 400 to 500 men.
"Many women who are trafficked are attracted to advertisements for a better
life," says Theresa Loar, director of the Interagency Council on Women, a
group established in 1995 to implement the mandates of the U.N. Fourth
World Conference on Women. Traffickers capitalize on the lack of viable
economic opportunities available to women in their countries of origin to
convince them to leave. Some girls are bought from poor families in
"Traffickers turn up in a rural community during a drought or before a
harvest, when food is scarce, and persuade poor couples [to] sell their
daughters for small amounts of money," says the U.N. Population Fund
report. Other girls are kidnapped from their homes and orphanages.
Law enforcement officials contend that the United States is currently
ill-equipped to deal with traffickers, even after their operations have
The only legal tools for combating traffickers are antiquated anti-peonage
laws, where the statutory maximum for sale into involuntary servitude is 10
years in prison per count. In contrast, the statutory maximum for dealing
10 grams of LSD or distributing a kilo of heroin is life in prison.
A review of sentences handed down in recent trafficking cases illustrates
the inadequacy of current legislation. In Los Angeles, where a Chinese
woman was kidnapped, raped and burned with cigarettes, the traffickers
received three to four years each. A man who forced Russian and Ukrainian
women to work as prostitutes in his Bethesda, Maryland massage parlor was
merely fined after a plea bargain restricted him from operating a future
business in Montgomery County. In a Florida case where women were raped,
confined, prostituted, assaulted and forced to undergo abortions,
defendants received sentences ranging from 2.5 to 6.5 years (although the
head of the operation was sentenced to 15 years).
There is currently little support or protection available for trafficked
women who escape or are discovered by law enforcement officials. According
to a CIA report, no shelters or comprehensive service providers currently
exist in the United States for victims of trafficking. Local shelters are
often apprehensive about accommodating trafficked women due to language and
other cultural barriers, and most shelters lack adequate security to
prevent the violent retaliation that often follows a woman's escape from
According to the CIA report, trafficked women are often deported or
arrested because the INS is legally required to treat them the same as
"other undocumented workers [who] have broken the law." In some cases, the
INS can give a victim of trafficking a special type of visa used for
witnesses in federal criminal cases; however, the INS is only permitted to
give out 200 such visas a year. As a result, "the No. 1 difficulty in
apprehending traffickers [is] getting the women to co-operate," Brown says.
Congress recently took steps to improve cooperation between victims and law
enforcement officials by signing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in
late September. The bill calls for the investigation of more stringent
penalties and the authorization of 5,000 so-called T-visas ("trafficking
visas") for women and girls who have been sexually trafficked.
According to Brown, meetings between government officials from Scandinavian
countries, the former Soviet Union and Eastern European nations are
encouraging law enforcement agencies to work cooperatively to target
organized crime rings with local links to prostitution.
Ultimately, prevention is the key, and it begins with improving conditions
for all women throughout the world. "Prevention of trafficking must
incorporate economic alternatives for women in the source countries,"
concludes the CIA report. "Poverty and high unemployment rates pose
hardships on women. Women who have jobs must contend with sexual harassment
in the workplace. It is this destitution and discrimination that make women
especially vulnerable to traffickers' false promises of good jobs abroad."
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