Charles J. Powell went undercover in three U.S. cities to investigate human trafficking—and his results were astounding.
Somewhere in the southeastern United States a frightened young Asian woman we’ll call Linn trembles with fear. Tonight for the first time she finds herself in a dimly lit room smelling of pine-scented disinfectant, stale rice and desperation. Faking a smile, Linn stands in a lineup among other women who are much like her, as a man she has never met selects which of them he will pay for sex. She is praying he will choose one of the other girls.
Linn did not choose to be a prostitute; she was brought to the U.S. by a criminal organization that promised her a job working as a maid for a wealthy American family. Yet upon her arrival in the United States, she was raped, beaten and told she would have to work in a brothel to pay the bill for her travel expenses to America—a bill she will never cease paying. Linn is now a sex slave and the latest victim of worldwide human trafficking.
According to the British National Archives, during the nearly 400 years of the transatlantic colonial slave trade (1519 to 1867), a total of 11 million Africans were captured and trafficked to the Americas. When that figure is compared to statistics from the United Nations and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which report that 600,000 persons are now trafficked internationally each year, one can readily calculate that during the last two decades worldwide human trafficking totals surpass that of 400 years of colonial slavery by a million.
Twelve million people have been sold into slavery in just 20 years. According to other DOJ statistics, thousands of men, women and children are trafficked into the United States illegally each year and sold as sex slaves to criminal organizations.
Human trafficking was defined in 2000 by the United Nations as “the recruitment, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion,” most often involving sexual exploitation or forced labor. Today the problem is bigger than most Americans could ever imagine, and for the most part, the church peacefully coexists with human trafficking right in its own backyard.
Recently I determined to investigate human trafficking in three major U.S. cities—Orlando, Fla.; Atlanta and Las Vegas. I began my strange American “odyssey” in Orlando, and for five days I used the investigative and undercover techniques I learned while working in the War on Drugs and as a police officer.
The results were astounding. By the end of the week, using the Internet, the Yellow Pages, free local rags and by driving around the city, I discovered 30 illegal brothels thought to be employing women trafficked illegally into the U.S. for the purposes of forced prostitution. All the brothels were within 15 miles of the church I used as a base of operations during my time in Orlando. Most of these establishments were disguised as somewhat legitimate massage parlors and spas, but to the trained eye they were easily outed as brothels.
To make matters worse, in almost every case in Orlando the business was obviously run by Asian organized crime. How could I be sure? When you walk into a massage parlor or spa where not a single person in the building speaks English, and you repeat the process day after day, hour after hour, there is only one possible explanation: organized crime.
A woman doesn’t say, “I want to immigrate to America and become a prostitute” of her own free will. The criminal methods being employed are well established and easily spotted.
My method was to enter the lobby of a suspected brothel posing as a tourist who had never previously visited such an establishment. I then asked questions about the services offered there, took a tour of the facilities, asked to meet all the girls working that day and made general conversation for as long as possible to allow myself time to look for the signs of human trafficking-related prostitution.
I continued making small talk until I thoroughly frustrated the massage parlor madam, who would eventually demand that I go with a girl to her room or leave the building. I always left, but not before I was able to determine with reasonable certainty whether or not to label the business a brothel staffed by illegally trafficked women.