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
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
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
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
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."