US federal agents have arrested 47 people suspected of smuggling hundreds of South Korean women into the country to work as prostitutes in brothels and massage parlors, officials said on Friday.
The arrests came late on Thursday in a series of swoops in the California hubs of San Francisco and Los Angeles aimed at cracking what officials believe was a massive sex smuggling network. Around 150 women, believed to be victims of the Asian woman smuggling syndicate, were taken into protective custody as agents tried to establish how they were brought into the country and how they were treated.
"This type of criminal organization exploits the hopes and dreams of immigrants," said US Attorney Debra Wong Yang at a press conference in Los Angeles.
"In this case, they exploited women, some of whom apparently suffered injuries as a result of their work," she said.
The women promised to pay up to US$16,000 each to be smuggled into the US where they were put to work as prostitutes, with some of their earnings going to repay their smuggling debts.
Around 100 women were found in alleged brothels that authorities said were disguised as massage parlors, spas and chiropractic clinics in San Francisco, while another 50 were taken into protective custody in Los Angeles.
Some 29 of those arrested were picked up in raids in San Francisco, while the other 18 were made in raids around Los Angeles, to the south. They were charged with counts including conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens for prostitution and transporting them across state lines, money laundering and sex trafficking.
Some of the women were smuggled into the US from Mexican and Canadian borders, while others came on fraudulently obtained visitor visas, prosecutors alleged. The ring allegedly used private taxi drivers to take women to brothels in Los Angeles as well as to the states of Texas and Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and Las Vegas.
Authorities said they seized around US$2 million from brothels in the San Francisco area and another US$300,000 in cash as well as bank accounts holding more than US$650,000 in Los Angeles. US authorities have been stepping up their crackdown against human trafficking in recent years with a growing quiver of arrests to their credit.