A bathhouse listed on a web site of erotic massage parlors in Houston. Thanks to the tireless efforts of anti-trafficking expert Dottie Laster and David Walding, an attorney with the Bernardo Kohler Center, the woman called Kiki featured in this story was released, after about a year of incarceration, from the La Salle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana, on July 20, and is awaiting receipt of her T-Visa.
After a brief stop in Houston for Thai food, she has moved to a safe place with a specially trained staff who assist victims of human trafficking. There, Kiki will get therapy as well as help finding a job and creating a new life for herself. This would include the period, six or so years ago, when she arrived in this country from Thailand and was moved from city to city so often she could not keep the names straight, much less spell or pronounce them.
The front windows were usually blacked out, and there was often an ATM in the tiny lobby, which was furnished with cheap, overstuffed sofas where the women sat, their arms and legs crossed, dressed in lingerie or bikinis, waiting for customers.
When the men arrived, their pick for the hour would walk them down a darkened hallway to a dim room with a massage table and soft music playing.
Kamchana was then in her late thirties, but she looked younger, a fleshy woman with a persuasive smile and, even in the worst of times, an irresistible warmth. The customers rarely seemed to grasp that the women were captives.
These so-called spas were as tightly run as maximum-security prisons: Without permission, no one got in—or out. Kamchana her name and nickname have been changed to protect her identity shared cramped, windowless bedrooms with women from Korea, China, and Thailand, all her belongings crammed into one small rolling suitcase. Every two weeks she was loaded up and moved to another city, another spa, another room that looked just like the one before it.
Like so many of the women on the circuit, she was being held until she paid off the debt of tens of thousands of dollars that she had taken on in exchange for passage to the U.
They had told her she would be working it off in a restaurant, but the job description had changed once she arrived. She mostly worked hour shifts, sold by the hour to men of different colors and creeds, rich and poor, grandfathers, husbands, fathers, sons. Sometimes her shifts lasted 24 hours. Most people who are aware of the existence of human trafficking think that it happens in faraway places, like war-torn countries in the former Soviet Union, Southeast Asia, or Eastern Europe.
Few can imagine that slaves are brought into the U. In fact, across the country, tens of thousands of people are being held captive today. Depending on whom you ask, Houston is either the leading trafficking site in the U. There are obvious reasons for this dubious accolade: Houston sits at the center of major highways between Los Angeles and Miami and between the U.
It has a sprawling international airport and a major international port. It is diverse in a way that allows immigrants to disappear into neighborhoods that are barely policed. It is impossible to know exactly how many women are currently sex slaves in Houston.
There is, of course, no census of prostitutes, let alone prostitutes who are here illegally and being held against their will. A Department of Justice report figured that between 14, and 17, people were being trafficked into the country every year. A report estimated that one quarter of all trafficking victims in the U. They also ring River Oaks, on Shepherd Drive to the north and south and on Richmond stretching to the Galleria and beyond.
Most of them accept credit cards. That same year, a sixty-year-old man named Evan Lowenstein was arrested for operating at least a dozen brothels stocked with women from Eastern Europe who had been brought into the U. He got probation and disappeared. In a man named David Salazar and his mother, Gregoria Vasquez Salgado, were charged with harboring illegal immigrants in what came to be known as the El Gallo case.
The pair was busted after a customer, in a fit of conscience, gave a sixteen-year-old victim his cell phone to call the police. David Salazar and his mother both pleaded guilty in and were sent to prison; El Gallo was apprehended last month in Mexico. But each time a case is made, the business simply morphs and grows in a new way.
She would probably be working in the spas today had she not been arrested last summer for a crime she most likely did not commit. Since then she has been incarcerated in a federal detention center in Louisiana. If she is deported, she will be sent back to Thailand, where she will most likely face shame from her family and possibly death at the hands of the people who dispatched her to America.
But even if she avoids this fate, it may be too late. Freed to return to Houston or any other American city, she might stand a good chance of ending up back where she started, as a prostitute.
She may already have suffered too much physical and psychological damage to ever recover fully. In fact, the safest place for Kamchana may be the limbo she lives in right now. Imagine you live in a country riven by war or poverty or both. There is no work. There is not enough food to feed your family or money for medicine when someone gets sick or injured. Education is nothing but a pipe dream.
If you are a woman, your value is even more tenuous; you have probably been beaten or abused in some other way by a father, a husband, or an employer. It will last for another thirty or forty years, with no improvement. And that will be it. Then one day someone says he can help you escape to the United States, where you can be free and make plenty of money for yourself while supporting your family back home.
Well and good, but who has the money to get there? No problem—you can escape on the installment plan. And so you sign, ignoring a clause that says your family will be held responsible for your debt if you cannot pay it.
If you have any identification documents at all, they are phony ones that you paid a fortune for back home, most likely adding to the debt you are already trying not to worry about. Someone picks you up and drives you away, and leaving the airport, you catch a glimpse of your future: All around you are people who want for nothing.
He tells you that this is where you will work to pay off your debt. When you protest, he beats you, starves you, or keeps you awake for days on end. Then, just to make himself clear, he holds up a picture of your son or your parents or your sister and tears it in half. You do not speak or read the language. You do not have a cent to your name. You have no idea where you are in this vast country, and you have no way of finding out because no one lets you go anywhere alone.
What do you do? Most likely, you do what you are told. This scenario is as common as it is surreal. The people who work with trafficking victims hear it all day, every day, from women and children brought to Houston from Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia, Latin America, and Africa.
And this is what happened to Kamchana. In her case, there were some variations. At 36, Kamchana was older than most trafficking victims, and she had grown up in Bangkok in a family that was middle-class by Thai standards.
All went reasonably well until she married a man who beat her. She stuck it out through the births of two daughters and a son and held down a job as a secretary in a manufacturing company. But the burdens were excessive. She was helping to support her relatives while submitting to frequent beatings that left her dazed, damaged, and in fear for her life.
Who could blame her? When she met a job recruiter who offered to get her to the United States, it seemed like the answer to her prayers. The recruiter seemed very professional. Kamchana was smart and resourceful. The job he spoke of in America was in a restaurant, a step down, but the money promised was so much more than she was making in Thailand. The recruiter gave her an airline ticket and a false passport, and in February , she landed in Los Angeles.
Customs officer grilled her about why she was traveling alone and whether she intended to work in the U. Kamchana spoke very little English, but she gave the answer that she had been taught: A Thai woman like me also has money to travel to the U. Outside Customs, she was met by a Thai woman who said she would escort her to a place called Philadelphia, where she would be working.
Suspicious, Kamchana challenged the woman, who took out her cell phone on the spot and called the recruiter back in Thailand to confirm her identity. In Philadelphia she was given a few days to rest, and then her new boss, a Korean man, told her she would be working as a prostitute.
If I was not going to make a profit, I would not have bought you. He had another woman who would teach her how to be a prostitute, he said, and there were videos she could watch for further instruction. Also, debts are taken very seriously: To renege on an agreement is to bring dishonor to the family, no matter what the deal stipulates.
Finally, traffickers use the threat of violence if all else fails. In other words, Kamchana felt she had no choice but to become Kiki. The massage parlor was open 24 hours a day. Kiki lived there with between eight and ten other Asian women. I made about eight hundred to fifteen hundred dollars a night. She had become an integral part of an organized Asian crime ring that was run more efficiently than many global corporations. The massage parlors all had similar layouts—like franchised restaurants—and the routine at each one was the same: Out of that she paid the spa owner for her daily expenses and her transportation to the next spa in the next city.