|LV alters tactics in fighting sex-slave trade
Authorities hope to help victims, go after traffickers
By Timothy Pratt
October 13, 2003
Metro Police Sgt. Gilbert Shannon says he can always tell by the fear
in their eyes.
He sees them on his unit's raids of massage parlors, where he finds
up to 20 of them living out of their suitcases in a single room.
The vice squad he works in made more than 4,000 arrests for prostitution
in the fiscal year ending in July, and a growing number of the young women
arrested were brought to the United States against their will and forced
into prostitution under a modern form of slavery, he said.
"I can see they're afraid ... almost all of them don't speak any English
... How are they going to get out of there?" Shannon said.
Most of the time, they don't. They get charged with a misdemeanor, then
put on probation or fined in court and are soon back in the massage parlors,
where they are forced to work and live.
The sergeant's investigative unit of seven runs across these cases weekly.
And though Metro has no way of keeping track of women in prostitution who
were trafficked from abroad, Shannon said there are dozens of so-called
sex slaves trapped in the Las Vegas Valley, and that the numbers are growing.
Nationally an estimated 20,000 people are trafficked into the country
every year, and up to 900,000 are trafficked worldwide, according to the
U.S. State Department.
It's natural that some of them land in Las Vegas, Shannon said. "We
have such a large prostitution-related industry ... it's a supply and demand
factor ... (and) traffickers look to this city to meet the demand," he
Until recently, authorities had no way to help these women out of their
situation and little luck getting at the traffickers themselves.
"It's a very sad and unfortunate situation. ... We're not interested
in going after them but after the people who are trafficking them," Shannon
Now a federal law passed in 2000 allows women who can show they were
trafficked into the country for sex or other reasons to become residents
and then citizens. It provides them the paperwork they need to obtain legal
jobs and social services and offers them protection from trafficking rings.
The new law also increases penalties against traffickers, including maximum
sentences of 20 instead of 10 years.
But few people know about the law. That's one of the reasons it was
the subject of a workshop held recently at the Boyd Law School at the University
of Nevada, Las Vegas. Participants included Shannon and about a dozen of
his colleagues, as well as representatives of nonprofits from across the
valley who have run across some of these women after they have escaped.
Sheila K. Neville, attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles,
told the auditorium how traffickers offer jobs such as housecleaning to
their victims and pay for their trips and visas. When the women arrive,
they are forced into prostitution. The traffickers threaten them and their
families back home if they attempt to escape.
Only 200 visas have been processed for women who were victims of trafficking
since the law was passed, though the cap is 5,000, Neville said. The problem,
she said, is that the word is still getting out.
Locally, Shannon said, he has seen women whom he suspects of being victims
of trafficking rings in Asian massage parlors across the valley.
"You can tell they're living there ... they have all their worldly belongings
and no passport, no money," he said.
They don't speak much English, either, meaning they probably recently
arrived, he said.
Attorney David Thronson, director of the UNLV immigration law clinic,
who helped organize the conference, said he is currently helping a woman
who was a sex slave obtain a visa through the new federal law.
Thronson wouldn't reveal any of the details of the case -- including
the victim's country of origin -- because he said word travels fast in
immigrant communities and the woman's family could be in danger back home.
Liliana Loftman, an attorney for Clark County Legal Services, a nonprofit,
said she has seen several Asian women who escaped from slavery at her office
in recent years.
She said she there are more women who could use help in that situation
locally, but she has no way of gaining access to them.
"My guess is that there is a gigantic amount out there, but we can't
prove it," Loftman said.
Loftman said it is difficult for her organization to spread information
about the law.
"I don't think there's an opportunity for us to go into a massage parlor
and give a presentation (on the law)," she said.
Thronson said nonprofits and pro bono attorneys are facing the same
obstacles across the valley.
"If the police are seeing these cases every week and we can only point
to a handful of cases that are getting assistance, then there's a huge
gap," he said.
Metro's vice unit does go into massage parlors, and Shannon hopes to
use that access to start informing possible victims. He would like to see
Metro put information about the law on a card or flier to distribute. He
will also be talking with Metro brass about how to work with federal authorities
on trafficking cases.
Neville said some of the biggest trafficking cases nationwide have been
cracked because of local law enforcement. One 2001 case involving Metro
and federal authorities resulted in five men receiving less than five years
each in prison for trafficking women and forcing them into prostitution
in Las Vegas.
"(The law) could be one of the tools to get at the big fish, since we
have something we can offer," Shannon said.
"If I have you as a victim and you're afraid of me, then you need something
from me in order to cooperate with me," he said.
He said the public needs to keep in mind that the many women who are
forced into prostitution "are just people ... who become the byproduct
of somebody else's greed."
Copyright 2003 Las Vegas SUN, Inc.