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Bound for misery

On the fast-moving circuit of international sex trafficking, say police, women regularly shuttle in and out of Boston

They are women of the world, born in China, Thailand, Korea; Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador.

They are women now scattered across the United States, listing addresses in California, Texas, North Carolina, New York.

They are women who, over the past two years, have traveled here in waves, holing up in such places as Allston/Brighton apartment buildings, East Boston homes, and a flat in the South End, records show.

In preparation for their day's work, the women slip into the personas of "Sasha" and "Susie" and "Sweet Blossom," or simple anonymity.

Then they perform their passion ploys : making money for their masters by selling their sexual services to area men.

Police and immigration specialists believe that many of these women are being rotated in and out of this and other U S cities by national networks of human traffickers, who employ local middlemen to manage Boston brothel franchises set up in Hub neighborhoods.

"People think it happens in Cambodia or Nepal," Kelley O'Connell, a Boston police sergeant detective, says about human trafficking.

"It's quite evident it's right under our noses," says O'Connell, who is assigned to the two-year-old state wide task force on human trafficking.

In a city of "New Bostonians" where more than 100 languages are bandied about, these foreign-born prostitutes are forced to live on the heartsick, sullen side of the Hub's immigrant experience, advocates and law enforcement officials say.

Over the past two years, Boston police and task force members have conducted a series of undercover stings in Allston/Brighton and East Boston meant to topple the traffickers and free the women.

The ethnic populations of Boston provide some customers -- and cover for the trafficking operations' reputed middle managers, who moonlight from regular jobs such as restaurant workers or truck drivers, court records show.

In Allston/Brighton, it's Asian men controlling the brothels of mostly Asian women, records show; in East Boston, it's largely Colombian males lording over Latinas.

In Boston, authorities know that to bring a federal trafficking case could inflict harsh penalties upon the bosses -- two leaders of a Mexico-to-New-York ring last year were sentenced to 50 years in prison -- and bestow upon the victims access to benefits such as medical care and housing to help rebuild their lives.

But the trafficking threshold, except when children are involved, requires proof of force, fraud, or coercion, and to the dismay of O'Connell and others, local investigators have not been able to meet that burden without the cooperation of the women in Boston. And, other than one instance that has the potential to be developed, the women weren't talking. Despite evidence that many had been selling their bodies against their will, O'Connell and others say, the women stuck to their scripted lives, some telling authorities even after their arrests for prostitution that they were only giving legitimate massages, and were doing so voluntarily.

'A modern form of slavery'

Last month, task force members discussed shifting strategies to try to untangle the local-national connections and break the women's bondage in Boston. Now, they vow to marshal money and manpower to snare the trafficking sources directly through higher-powered methods such as wiretaps and surveillance.

"This is the underserved victim population of our time," says task force director Karen McLaughlin of those who are trafficked.

US officials estimate that up to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, put to work in places ranging from family homes to sweatshops to brothels.

"Trafficking in human beings is nothing less than a modern form of slavery," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said.

The passage to the dark sections of immigrant cities like Boston can be veiled, yet vile.

In one typical scenario, advocates say, the international journey begins with commercial-sex headhunters who use phony promises of jobs in restaurants or health spas to prey on women from impoverished locations desperate to find an American payday to help their families back home.

After being smuggled illegally onto US shores, the women are hit with the tab: thousands of dollars in fees.

With no real English or true documentation -- and the bosses' boots on their necks -- they have no chance of paying off the debt unless they divert from the common immigrant arc of toiling in entry-level jobs and join the traffickers' underground sex syndicates.

Queens a staging area

On the East Coast, the ethnic enclaves within the New York City borough of Queens such as Flushing and Jackson Heights have become major recruiting centers for traffickers, according to law enforcement officials and advocates.

In August, federal authorities charged more than 30 Korean nationals with operating a sex-trafficking operation along part of the Northeast Corridor: New York, Philadelphia, Washington. A chain of brothels, and a transporter for the enterprise, were based in Queens.

Two years before, members of the Carreto family of Mexico were indicted on charges that they lured young women from that country to work in brothels around New York City, including Queens.

One of the men likened his job to "recruiting fillies for a race," according to court records. One of the women was forced to service more than 20 men a day, the records show.

In Boston, authorities say a proliferation of similar-looking sex-for-a-fee and related transgressions over the last several years raised their suspicions that women are being trafficked here.

In the more than 40 arrests in Allston/Brighton alone in 2005, records show, the aberrant morphed into the widespread: foreign-born women, listing far-away home addresses -- including many in Queens -- arrested for prostitution in illicit massage ventures and needing interpreters in court because they could not speak English.

Court records show their residences as Smithfield, N.C. Queens, N.Y. Amarillo, Texas. Flushing, N.Y. Long Beach, Calif. Jackson Heights, N.Y.

One who appeared in Brighton District Court is a 39-year-old Hong Kong native who lived in Flushing and has a lawyer in Miami. Another is a 37-year-old Colombian woman from Jackson Heights who had her case dismissed last month in East Boston District Court.

Meanwhile, a 24-year-old woman from New York via China is due back in Boston Municipal Court tomorrow on a charge of being a prostitute in a South End den. Police point to their seizure of bank receipts of $19,000 from that East Berkeley Street site to show how lucrative the business can be.

In Allston, another 'menu'

To investigators, these did not bear the fingerprints of ordinary homegrown commercial sex transactions.

For them, another clue came from the advertisements on the Internet that referred to the women in one Allston locale as "menu" items -- "We line them up and you decide who you want."

Inside that Quint Avenue haunt, records show, a Beijing-born woman conveyed to an undercover cop the price of sex by tracing the numerals in the air: $160.

In addition, the ads boasted: "We change masseus es each week!"

This was not only a way to offer customers fresh faces and bodies, law enforcement officials and advocates say, but was a sign of a national chain trying to prevent the women from getting comfortable in one place lest they ponder talking to the authorities, or fleeing before paying off the traffickers' carrying charges.

In East Boston, police say, turnover is so constant that Mondays there are known as travel days, as some women ship out while others arrive.

"It's a lonely, isolated experience," Carol Gomez, founder of the Boston-based Trafficking Victims Outreach & Services Network, says of those trapped inside a loop of exploitation.

Money flows from the women to their handlers, advocates say, to pay for food and rent and debt service and transportation to different cities where phone numbers in their pockets connect them to another string of strange addresses in which they are put right to work. If they miss a day of labor, Gomez says, the money comes out of their earnings.

Or worse. In court records, prosecutors in the Carreto case described the physical hold the traffickers held on the women, through rapes, forced abortions, beatings with belts and beer bottles.

"Vicious," says sergeant detective O'Connell.

A hold on bodies and minds

Other times, advocates and law enforcement officials say, the shackles are psychological: threats to turn the women over to immigration authorities and have their stories splashed across international headlines.

"They inculcate a fear about being reported, of being humiliated," says Dr. Jose Hidalgo, who has studied Boston-based human trafficking.

The warnings can get even more cutthroat, such as pledges to kill the women or their families.

During the successful 2004 Boston prosecution of an Estonian man who federal authorities said imported women to perform erotic massages in Allston/Brighton and kick back the proceeds to him, it came out that Roman Valdma tried to keep his workers in line by boasting of his connections to the "Russian Mafia," court records show. The authorities infiltrated his organization, anyway.

Boston's apparent presence on the sex-slave circuit is less a testament to the city's unique qualities than the traffickers' desire for more money-making avenues, advocates say.

"Trafficking is present, to some degree, in every urban center in the United States," says Derek Ellerman, co-executive-director of Polaris Project, an international group combatting human trafficking.

The alleged Eastie trafficking enterprises are more insular than those in Allston/Brighton, police and advocates say.

Rather than solicit business in cyberspace, the Eastie M.O. includes having operatives distribute business cards containing phone numbers but no addresses on car windshields and to passersby in busy spots like Maverick Square -- a promotional scheme used in other US cities, advocates say.

For example, prospective johns in the know understand they can receive a sexual spark by responding to the phone number on business cards promoting "Servicios Electricos " -- literally, electric services -- according to court records. The card also serves as a pass into the dwelling.

In a 2004 East Boston case, an undercover officer calling that number was directed to a Sumner Street apartment and was assured "a 24-year-old Venezuelan girl just in from New York," records show.

The year before, court records show, a 40-year-old Dominican woman carrying a new Florida address told a cop after an undercover sortie on a house of prostitution in East Boston that she'd been arrested in New York for solicitation of sex. She was busted for the same thing here, too.

In March of last year, an East Boston undercover officer was told in Spanish that he could have a "hot" and "sexy" 18-year-old girl from Mexico, court records show.

The case of the $30 marble

In another instance last year, an Eastie cop was working in plainclothes to pierce a reputed Bennington Street brothel. He was told the doors opened at 11:15 a.m., court records show.

Once in, he handed over $30 to a 47-year-old tattooed man from Colombia, who recorded the transaction in a notebook.

From a small plastic bag, the Colombian then gave the officer a marble, which the cop was to pass on to the reputed prostitute, a 24-year-old Dominican woman up from New Jersey.

Law enforcement officers and advocates say the use of marbles, poker chips, or playing cards is a notorious accounting system that national traffickers use to keep track of the womens' johns.

In alleged Eastie trafficking spheres -- as in Latino brothels elsewhere in the United States, advocates say -- the base equation for sex is: "$30 for 15 minutes," according to court records.

Then a buzzer goes off, or a chime sounds, and it's time for the woman to serve the next in line.

Ric Kahn can be reached at rkahn@globe.com.

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