NEW YORK (CNN) - Another 21 alleged members of an international sex trafficking ring have been charged in the United States with forcing hundreds of Thai women to travel to the US to work as "modern sex slaves."
They join 17 members charged last October, three of whom have pleaded guilty.
The indictment, unsealed Thursday in St. Paul, Minnesota, details a scheme dating back to 2009, which denied the women their freedom until payment of bondage debts that were often as high as $60,000.
According to a statement made by US Attorney Gregory Brooker of the District of Minnesota, the defendants include 10 Thai nationals and 11 US citizens, arrested at various locations in Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Austin, Houston, and Chicago. One defendant remains at large.
"The complexities of this organization represent the lengths to which criminals will go to profit off of human beings. This is an important reminder that sex trafficking and the associated buying, are not victimless crimes -- this organization preyed and profited on vulnerable women," said Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, who took part in the dismantling of the criminal enterprise.
Operating since January 2009 through May 2017, the criminal organization allegedly trafficked hundreds of women from Bangkok, Thailand, to various cities across the US, including Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, and Austin.
'Owned by the organization'
The women, often from impoverished backgrounds and speaking little to no English, were lured with promises of a better life and steady income in the US.
The indictment says they were informed back in Thailand that they would engage in prostitution activities, but were often "painted a rosy picture of life in the United States," with a quick payoff of the debt and a chance to send money back home.
Once in the US, the women were forced to have sex with strangers -- at times all day, every day, with up to 10 or more men -- and were isolated, not allowed to leave the prostitution houses without an escort. In the event of an attempted escape, the woman and her family in Thailand would be threatened, compelling her to return to "work."
The indictment described them as "modern sex slaves."
"The victims are isolated," the document states. "The victims are effectively 'owned' by the organization."
In addition to the significant bondage debt, the victims were forced to bear the cost of cosmetic surgery they were encouraged to undergo, to make them "more appealing to potential sex buyers in the United States," according to the indictment.
Typically, 60% of the profit was routed to a trafficker to pay down the bondage debt, while the rest of the money would be retained by the "house boss" who owned the prostitution facility.
A sex ring worth tens of millions of dollars
The eight-count indictment outlines bulk cash smuggling and money laundering offenses, detailing "funnel accounts" to route cash from cities across the US to money launderers in Los Angeles.
The ring moved tens of millions of dollars from the US to Thailand and elsewhere using a "hawala-based system," in which family members and trusted individuals would carry large volumes of cash on their person, including hiding cash in clothing and dolls.
The women brought to the US for sex purposes were also forced to open bank accounts in their own names, which were controlled by members of the organization for coordinated deposits.
"The special agents of IRS Criminal Investigation are committed to taking the profit away from these human traffickers," stated Special Agent in Charge Shea Jones of the St. Paul Field Office IRS Criminal Investigation.
"As all financial transactions leave a trail, IRS Criminal Investigation special agents used their accounting expertise to analyze the complex financial transactions made by these criminals."
Their positions ranged from traffickers, who held the bondage debt of a victim, to house bosses, who "owned" the houses of prostitution, to money launderers and facilitators, whose responsibilities included transportation of women to different houses of prostitution -- travel costs which were added to the victims' bondage debt.
According to US Attorney Brooker, this investigation took years to complete and to finally "disrupt and dismantle this criminal organization from all angles."
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