Prosecutors seek global connections at sex-trafficking summit

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 September, 2016, 12:25pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 September, 2016, 8:30pm

US prosecutors are calling the scourge of sex trafficking a form of modern-day slavery that touches every state in the nation, and they’re working to draw connections between active investigations around the globe at a summit in Waikiki.

Representatives from eight countries and a dozen states met to share details about cases of victims forced into the sex industry, hoping to collaborate on strategies to bring traffickers to justice.

“Sex trafficking internationally is somewhere between a US$7 billion and US$23 billion business,” said Cyrus Vance Jr., district attorney for New York County. “It’s second to international arms sales in terms of the scope of the crime and the money that’s involved with it. So it’s huge. And it’s in every community in America — whether we like to acknowledge it or not — and every country around the world.”

Prosecutors from Canada, China, Japan, Palau, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand attended the summit, along with American prosecutors from Hawaii and states spanning the coasts and the Midwest.

In New York City, where there’s a special court to handle cases involving prostitution or sex trafficking, many young men and women are brought in from other states and forced to work in the sex industry, Vance said.

California law enforcement officers have encountered victims forced into the sex trade from Mexico, Taiwan and China, but most of the victims were born in the United States, said Michael Ramos, district attorney for San Bernardino County and president of the National District Attorneys Association.

“Yes we have a problem internationally ... but we really have a homegrown problem, and we need to take care of that,” Ramos said.

Prosecutors in Hawaii have encountered sex-trafficking victims brought to the US from China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea and Thailand, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro said. In the past year, the prosecutor’s office has closed down three massage parlours in Honolulu that involved Asian sex-trafficking victims, including one case where sex workers from China were flown to New York and then Hawaii, he said.

“There are a lot of massage parlours proliferating in our community,” Kaneshiro said.

The conference, which began Wednesday, is being held in Hawaii, which was the last state in the nation to formally ban sex trafficking.

Kaneshiro, who co-sponsored the summit, said they intend to send a clear message that sex trafficking will not be tolerated.

Most of the law enforcement conference is closed to the media because prosecutors will be discussing ongoing cases and sharing intelligence, Kaneshiro said.

“We have international investigations ongoing, but we have not built those cases to indictment yet,” Vance said. “That’s the point of this event. I know that there’s international traffic coming in from Europe and from Asia. But we need to have the relationships with those governments to help us understand what they’re seeing and then build the cases.”