[Stop-traffic] News/US: Two to be sentenced in sex ring

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/US: Two to be sentenced in sex ring
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Mon Jan 22 2001 - 09:36:04 EST

Two to be sentenced in sex ring
The Associated Press, January 2, 2001

HOUSTON (AP) -- In rundown houses only blocks from Houston's gleaming
downtown office buildings, federal officials say a modern form of slavery

Young Asian women smuggled into the country were handcuffed, chained or
tied with leather restraints behind barred windows in at least three
brothels and were forced to have sex with about 15 men daily until each
raised $40,000 to pay the smugglers, authorities say.

The Chinese and Thai women were not allowed to make phone calls, write
letters or leave secret compartments in the houses where they were hidden.

``Even when they weren't physically restrained, they were held captive
psychologically, by threats and by fear in a country where they had no
papers and couldn't speak the language,'' Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward
Gallagher said.

Two people convicted of smuggling the women into the United States and
selling them into prostitution are set to be sentenced Thursday before a
federal judge.

They are among seven people charged as a result of Operation Little Dragon,
a two-year undercover investigation by the Houston district of the U.S.
Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI and officials in Thailand
and Chile.

Richard Kuniansky, the attorney representing Sriwan ``Sonya'' Sakyai, a
prostitute and ring member, said federal officials are misinformed if they
believe the women were exploited.

``What they view as horrible smugglers taking advantage of women, these
girls look at it as the break of a lifetime,'' he said. ``These women make
less than $1,000 a year in Thailand. Here they make enough money to pay off
their $40,000 contract in a year. The government should quit wasting
astronomical amounts of money on victimless crimes.''

Kuniansky said the women commonly are locked in at night and have limited
access to a single phone, although they sometimes go on group shopping
trips to a mall. He said he knows nothing of restraints or abuse.

Kuniansky, a former assistant U.S. attorney and state prosecutor, said
Houston is a hub for prostitute-smuggling groups. ``It goes on more in
Houston than any other city, although Los Angeles and Atlanta are also
big,'' he said.

The Houston ring, suspected to be headed by a Bangkok woman, smuggled about
30 women a month over at least two years, says Roger Piper, director of the
Houston INS office.

Their journey would begin in the hold of a ship that took them from the Far
East to Chile, Ecuador or Guatemala. They would then either travel north
through South America overland or fly to Los Angeles or Houston.

Sakyai, 28, pleaded guilty to 17 counts of conspiracy, encouraging unlawful
immigration, document fraud, and causing others to travel internationally
for prostitution. She faces up to 120 years in prison and up to $4 million
in fines.

Co-conspirator and brothel boss, Ratiporn ``Tomboy'' Tantirojanakitkan of
Los Angeles, pleaded guilty to 14 counts, including encouraging others to
unlawfully immigrate, transporting illegal immigrants and causing others to
travel for prostitution. Tantirojanakitkan, 30, faces up to 90 years in
prison and fines of up to $2.5 million.

Women of Thai, Chinese, South African, and increasingly, Russian and
Eastern European descent are most commonly sold into the Houston sex trade,
Piper said.

``There hasn't really been a country we haven't seen, though,'' Piper said.
``It (shows) what the world thinks of women.''

According to the United Nations, an estimated 4 million people worldwide
are smuggled each year to work against their will, about 50,000 of them to
buyers in the United States.

In the Houston cases, the extent to which the women were victimized varied.

Most of the Thai women already were prostitutes and understood they would
resume their occupation in the United States. Chinese women more often were
kidnapped or deceived by smugglers who came to their rural villages
promising jobs as waitresses or maids, Gallagher said.

``We see so many 14- and 15-year-old girls who were tricked into thinking
they would work as waitresses or nannies,'' says Lilian Care, a member of
Women Against Global Trafficking at Houston's First Unitarian Universalist

Charles Foster, honorary Thai consul in Houston, said his country is
working to educate women to avoid traffickers. ``The government of Thailand
takes it very seriously,'' Foster said.
Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

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