The following article was originally published in 1997 by the San Francisco Examiner.
Catalina Suarez was 9 years old when a grandfatherly neighbor lured her with a gift, kidnapped her and kept her chained her to a bed in a rural Puerto Rico shack, forc- ing the child to have brutal sex with a succession of men.
It was the beginning of 18 years of sexual slavery throughout Latin America and the United States. By her own account, Suarez should have died several times from drugs, disease, beatings and neglect, but in December the San Francisco resident testified before the United Nations about her ordeal.
"I was always under the influence of some kind of drags, or I was traumatized by the beatings or the pain or the fear," said Suarez, 36. "I was put into trunks of cars with rats and roaches. I screamed and screamed and screamed. No one would help me."
Suarez's testimony comes as of- ficials and watchdog groups con- front a booming international trade ill women and children as slaves for prostitution. The mul- timillion-dollar sex-slave traffick- ing stretches from Thailand to San Francisco, from Russia to New York City. The U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C., is conducting a nationwide investigation of the prostitution slavery of Thai women and girls, federal and state officials told The Examiner.
"It is a high priority," said Marcia Liss, a trial attorney with justice's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Division in Washington, D.C. "There is a greater interest in law enforcement and protection within that area, and with services to the women who we view as victims."
Immigration and Naturalization Service agents in the last six months have searched more than 20 massage parlors suspected of offering indentured or enslaved women for prostitution in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas, Houston and New Orleans, officials said. Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for the INS in San Francisco, declined comment, saying, "there's a case in progress." Steven Gruel, a prosecutor with justice's Organized Crime Strike Force in San Francisco who is assigned to the case, also declined comment.
The investigation follows prosecutions for such crimes in New York, Atlanta, Seattle, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Women in several cases told investigators of being beaten, raped, burned with cigarettes and ordered to have sex with hundreds of men to work off transportation "fees" of up to $60,000, court records show.
The smuggling of prostitutes to the United States is part of a teeming global sex industry, said Kathleen Barry, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of "Prostitution of Sexuality: The Global Exploitation of Women." The business is fueled both by women seeking to escape poor or repressive countries and by a seemingly insatiable demand for their services, Barry said. Millions of women have been sold worldwide for prostitution since the 1970s, she said. Southeast Asia, Latin America and -- increasingly -- the former Soviet Union are main sources of women bound for brothels in America, Amsterdam and Japan, said Justice's Liss.
BOUND FOR A SAN FRANCISCO BROTHEL
Once in the United States, the women typically are rotated from city to city to evade law enforcement, keep the women disoriented and give clients fresh faces, experts said.
One prostitution pipeline was discovered when a young Thai woman ran off a Southwest Airlines jet about to leave E1 Paso, Texas, for San Francisco. Araya Sangsida told an INS agent she had fled from a woman escorting her to be "sold into pros titution in San Francisco," said the affidavit of Agent Anthony Ho. Sangsida said she had agreed to pay $34,000 to be smuggled from Thailand to the United States and to work it off as a prostitute, but found the conditions insufferable, according to court documents.
She had been taken to Houston's ton's Bangkok Spa, where she was kept incommunicado in a locked room, according to Ho's affidavit. She got venereal disease and became uncooperative and suicidal, it says. Then, the brothel's madam resold Sangsida for $15,000 to her importer, who said she'd have to work it off in San Francisco.
"She would have to have sex with over 500 men at $93 each, for 45 minutes per man, and 10 men men per day," Ho's affidavit said. After her escort's plane landed in San Francisco, INS agents arrested Patcharin Arerad, 23, confiscated a key from her and traced it to a room at the Abby Hotel at 635 Geary St., the affidavit says. The room was registered to Arerad's fiance, Vittawat Thongsiri, who also was arrested.
In the room, agents found about $22,000, airline ticket stubs and Thai passports for five other wom- en, the affidavit says. Three other Thai women in San Francisco claimed Thongsiri had taken their travel papers until each paid him $40,000 by prostituting themselves, it says.
INS agents in Houston raided the Bangkok Spa and found eight Asian women -- including a 15- year-old -- held as captive prosti- tutes, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Herrera in Houston. Two of the women admitted working at San Francisco's Suk Hee Spa at 483 Broadway. One said she'd worked off a $40,000 travel fee there in three months, said Herrera. The women had been rotated through brothels in San Francisco, Houston and Atlanta, she added.
Thongsift, 35, was charged with conspiracy to import Sangsida and two juvenile sisters to work as prostitutes, allegedly delivering one to a Sacramento brothel and the other to the Suk Hee Spa. A second man, Kiat Siriwutanaukul, 34, was charged with transporting Sangsida for prostitution. Both pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to harbor illegal resi- dents for purposes of prostitution.
The court noted in an order that the sisters came from a "pitiable background." Their mother had sold them into prostitution when they were 12 years old, added one source familiar with the case.
SELLING THEIR DAUGHTERS
Women and girls involved in interational prostitution trafficking typically come from poor or politically unstable countries.
"It becomes profitable for fami- lies to sell their women and girls," said Norma Hotaling, executive director of Sage, a San Francisco group that works with prostitutes. "The recruiters are right there to buy them." Some women are falsely told they're bound for legitimate jobs in restaurants, garment shops or homes, said INS spokesman Brian Jordan. Some know they'll work in brothels, but don't anticipate the horrid conditions, he said.
Xie Mei Chen, 22, hoped to be a housekeeper in America. In September 1994, a man took her on a bus ride in China's Fujian province under the guise of discussing the job. But he put a knife to her belly and told her she was going to America and would die if she resisted, says an indictment in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Chen was taken to Guangdong province, put on a Taiwanese fish- ing boat with 160 other illegal im- migrants and shipped to Mexico. She crossed into the United States on foot near San Ysidro, the indict- ment says.
By March 1995 she was in New York City, where Wang Yong Can, 26, told her she had to work as a prostitute to repay a $20,000 travel fee. When she refused, Can took her to a hotel, bound her with a phone cord, beat her and made her have sex with him and numerous other men, it says.
Can and his uncle, Li Ming Lin, 42, then took Chen to Los Angeles, where Can's wife, Troy Hong Yee, 26, locked her in a brothel, the indictment says. They sent in brutal clients, say- ing she had no right to decline them, and made her have an abor- tion, it says. When she objected, they burned her hand and chest with cigarettes, the indictment says, and Lin raped her. They threatened to kill her family in China, the indictment says. When she finally worked off the $20,000 fee by September 1995, Can increased the amount to $60,000, an affidavit says.
In March 1996 Chen escaped. A good Samaritan couple found her weeping in a shopping mall parking lot and took her to police, accord- ing to the affidavit of INS agent Carlos Archuleta.
Chen cooperated with INS agents, who arrested her captors. Four of them are to be sentenced on various charges in U.S. District in Los Angeles on April 14.
Catalina Suarez's ordeal, which she related in a sometimes tearful interview, underscored the dehumanizing impact of the sex trade. Her parents were divorced, her mother was an alcoholic, and she'd been raped by a stepbrother. So the runaway was only too eager when a kindly older neighbor said he had a gift for her in his car.
He drove her to a rural area and took her to the backroom of a rickety bar, where a man started to undress. She ran, but after shots were fired at her, she submitted. She was then tied to a metal bed in a shack for most of the next year and forced to have sex with men who paid her captor. She was usually gagged, often drugged and subjected to brutal sexual assaults, some of which were videotape& Life became a blur of pain and terror, she said. "I didn't know what day it was."
Then, she was forced to work in a succession of brothels in Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Guatemala and, by the time she was 14, Sacramento to, Suarez said. She was constantly beaten, Suarez said, 'and once was hung from a ceiling and hit with a baseball bat. She caught many venereal diseases and became too sick to eat.
From Sacramento she moved on to cheap motels, massage parlors and escort services in Reno, New York, Ohio.and Alaska, Suarez said, adding that she had be- come addicted to heroin and cocaine and resigned to her role as a prostitute.
Sunfez had few skills and knew no other life. A series of some 20 pimps made sure of that. "The last one was just as mean as the first one," she said. "I can't say that any of them were kind."
When she was 27, a Martinez judge sent her to the Discovery House drug treatment program, which proved to be a turning point. She went on to spend three years at Delancey Street, work at Glide Memorial Church and enroll at Walden House.
"Ever since then, I've been dealing with one issue after another," she said. "It's been like shedding skin." Suarez now works at Promise, a nonprofit San Francisco group that helps women break out of prostitution.
On Dec. 6, she told her story to the General Assembly of the United Nations at a hearing on international trafficking of women and children. She called the occasion "a very blessed and holy day for me." She'd come a long way from the shed in Puerto Rico, but was still dealing with the damage. "I want a normal life," she said. "I want to be a human being again."
San Francisco Examiner
6 April 1997