Accused global sex-trafficking ring busted with U.S., international arrests

NEW YORK, Oct 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than a dozen people have been arrested and accused of running an international sex-trafficking ring that held hundreds of Thai women trapped in debt bondage across the United States, authorities said on Wednesday.

The arrests could be a fatal blow to the criminal organization cited for luring victims from poor backgrounds in Bangkok to live as sex slaves, U.S. federal authorities said.

"They promised women in Thailand a chance at the American dream, but instead exploited them, coerced them and forced them to live a nightmare," said Andrew Luger, U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, in a statement.

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The arrests, made on Tuesday and announced on Wednesday, capped an investigation of more than two years into the ring, which allegedly had been operating since 2009, authorities said.

Arrests were made in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Honolulu of 12 Thai and five U.S. nationals, and the accused Thai boss was arrested in Belgium in August, they said. Four other suspects remain at large, they said.

Related: Look into other human trafficking concerns around the world:

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SHAMLAPUR, BANGLADESH - JULY 4: A photograph of Rohingya trafficking victim Mohammad Aiaz is seen July 4, 2015 in Shamlapur, Bangladesh. On March 5, 2015 Aiaz met a man who promised to take him to a good job in Malaysia for free. He left Bangladesh with 13 other Rohingya. A few days after that his mother, Lila Begum, got a phone call from her son saying he was on the ship and that she needed to pay a man in Teknaf 200,000 taka ($2,570) or he would be killed. She managed to pay 175,000 but she has not heard from her son since. In the past months thousands of Rohingya have landed on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, many of them by way of Bangladesh. The Rohingya pay up to $2,000 to traffickers, and they sail out from Bangladesh's southern coastline on fishing boats to meet larger ships in the deep sea that will take them to Malaysia. UNHCR estimates that there are more than 300,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh. (Photo by Shazia Rahman/Getty Images)
An armed Malaysian policeman checks a driver's documentations a day after the government announced the discovery of camps and graves, the first such sites found in Malaysia since a regional human-trafficking crisis erupted earlier this month, near Malaysia-Thailand borders in Wang Kelian on May 25, 2015. A total of 139 grave sites and 28 human-trafficking camps have been found in a remote northern Malaysian border region, the country's top police official told reporters. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A journalist takes photo of 24 alleged human traffickers' pictures displayed on a board, released by Italian police during a press conference in Palermo on April 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO / MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO (Photo credit should read MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO/AFP/Getty Images)
Sex workers and sympathizers demonstrate on April 9, 2015 against the closure of window brothels by the municipality in the red light district in Amsterdam. With Project 1012, the Amsterdam wants to close window prostitution to prevent crime, human trafficking and degradation. AFP PHOTO / ANP / ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN - netherlands out - (Photo credit should read ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Ivanka Trump speaks during a meeting on action to end modern slavery and human trafficking on the sidelines of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
ATHENS, ATTIKI, GREECE - 2017/10/14: Greek human right activists take part in the 2017 Walk for Freedom event raising awareness about Human Trafficking. (Photo by George Panagakis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ATHENS, ATTIKI, GREECE - 2017/10/14: Greek human right activists take part in the 2017 Walk for Freedom event raising awareness about Human Trafficking. (Photo by George Panagakis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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The scale of the arrests should hurt the ring "very badly," said Alex Khu, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in St. Paul, Minnesota.

"We weren't just taking out the runners, but we were also taking out facilitators, people who were in charge of money ... domestically and internationally," he said.

Forced to work as prostitutes, the women were held in bondage until they paid off debts as high as $60,000, prosecutors said.

They were told to undergo breast implant surgery, and the surgery cost was added to their debt, they said.

The captors threatened to hurt their families if they resisted, they said. The victims, who numbered in the hundreds and spoke little English, were held in U.S. cities including Minneapolis, Washington, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Dallas.

The charges include conspiracy, sex trafficking and committing forced labor.

Over the past decade, anti-slavery group Polaris said it has received reports of more than 14,500 sex trafficking cases in the United States.

Globally, nearly 21 million people are victims of human trafficking, according to the U.N.'s International Labour Organization (ILO). An estimated 4.5 million of them are forced into sex work. (Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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