US prosecutors seek more Thai suspects in sex ring case

US prosecutors seek more Thai suspects in sex ring case

US attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger is hoping more women come forward after last week's charges against 17 people, including 12 Thais. (AP photo)
US attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger is hoping more women come forward after last week's charges against 17 people, including 12 Thais. (AP photo)

US prosecutors are urging closer cooperation with local police to expand their investigations into a trafficking ring they claim involved hundreds of Thai women being sold into "sexual slavery".

"This is a hierarchical organisation," US assistant attorney Laura Provinzino told US Public Radio. "We hope to work with police in Thailand to identify additional people involved in the trafficking and more of the victims."

A dozen people were arrested in cities across the US on Tuesday after the US attorney for Minnesota, Andrew Luger, unsealed an indictment charging 17 members of an alleged international sex trafficking ring. The accused include 12 Thai nationals and five Americans. The multiple charges covered sex trafficking, forced labour, money laundering and visa fraud.

The indictment said since 2009, hundreds of women were brought from Thailand to several US cities, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Washington and Dallas and forced to work off "debt bondage" of $40,000-60,000 (up to 2 million baht).

Sumalee Intarathong, 55, who was arrested in Belgium on Aug 5 on similar trafficking charges, was identified as the alleged "boss" of the operation who "owned the girls" before they until the paid off the bondage debt. US prosecutors said they will seek her extradition from Belgium.

Despite the US attorney's claims that hundreds of women were sold into "sexual slavery", it appears a small number have spoken to investigators.

"A number of women have come forward already, and we are hoping more will as a result of today's charges," Mr Luger said.

When asked how many are cooperating with US law enforcement, Ms Provinzino said "some are".

"We have victims all throughout the United States," she said. "We are working with our NGO partners to make sure they have the appropriate services they need and also to make sure that they have legal support should they be eligible for visas or other immigration benefits as being trafficking victims."

Thatree Chauvachata, director of the Protection of Thai Nationals Abroad Division under the Foreign Ministry, said they were setting up help centres at all Thai consulates in the US for the alleged victims. He said since the allegations were made public on Tuesday they have received only one request for help.

"We are now trying to get officials from the Thai consulate in the US to help us with some basic investigations," he told the Bangkok Post Sunday.

"But some states are on the 'non-mandatory list' which means they don't have to inform us if they find the women. If anyone is in need of help, they can contact us at any time, we will have local officials to help in their locations."

Kornchai Klayklueng, the commander of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division, said they had always worked closely with US Homeland Security in Bangkok on human trafficking and prostitution and "this case is no different".

Maj Gen Kornchai said they hadn't received any special request from the US government regarding the case. He said they were already investigating the Thais allegedly involved and running checks on their criminal records in Thailand.

Maj Gen Kornchai said they were working with the Department of Consular Affairs, Civil Registration Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and local police to see if there was a link to people trafficking.

"We are now working hard to determine who they are and where they are," he told the Bangkok Post Sunday of the 12 Thais charged. "I'm not sure if the traffickers are working in Thailand or outside of the country."

Mr Luger said their investigation -- which used surveillance, search warrants and interviews -- revealed "a global command and control structure based out of Thailand that employed house bosses, recruiters, facilitators and runners both in Thailand and abroad".

"These co-conspirators rented apartments and hotels and provided domestic and foreign transportation of the victims, laundered proceeds and committed visa fraud."

Ms Provinzino said the investigation started in Minnesota when they noticed many Thai women code-named "flowers" being transported through the Minneapolis-St Paul airport. They were immediately taken to shopping malls in inner-ring suburbs. "They'd purchase condoms and other supplies and then they were taken directly to the hotel or apartment where they were then set to service multiple men each day in commercial sex acts," she said.

Many of the women were taken to airports and flown to cities around the US after their services were advertised on websites. They were under the supervision of "runners" who were sometimes "paid" with sexual services provided by the women at their boss's behest.

Ms Provinzino said the women were isolated and didn't have any ability to say no to where they were going or who they would have sex with.

They were lured to the US with the promise of a better life and assurances the bondage debt would be paid off within two months. "What we are learning from our victims is that it could take substantially longer than that," she said "Up to four or five years, or never at all."

Mr Luger said an important part of the alleged ring keeping control over the women was the personal information the "friendly" traffickers extracted from them.

"Armed with this information, the bosses and Thai gangsters they associated with threatened the women who wanted to, or tried to, escape from the organisation, including threats their families would be harmed if they didn't do everything they were told," he said.

Mr Luger said despite the close attention from the runners, who even accompanied them to the bank to ensure they paid their bondage debts, some of the women managed to escape.

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