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 vulnerable communities.

"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 been uncovered.

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 her captors.

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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