Meredith May, San Francisco Chronicle Reporter, Exposes Trafficking Horrors

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The San Francisco Chronicle‘s four-part series on sex trafficking exposes the harsh reality that trafficking in human beings is a lucrative and ruthlessly exploitative enterprise. Reporter Meredith May describes in haunting detail the story of You Mi, a Korean college girl whose attempts to settle her credit card debt land her in the middle of a sex slavery ring in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. May’s reporting shines the harsh light of truth on the reprehensible sex trade and the morally outrageous behavior of the pimps, johns and criminal networks that are getting rich by exploiting girls like You Mi.

May’s series also points out the extent of the sex trafficking industry and the problems faced by those who can’t keep up with the growth of the criminal networks. In 2005, one raid of 10 Asian massage parlors in San Francisco turned up over $2 million in cash. May’s sources said it didn’t make a dent in the illegal sex trade.

May sets the stage for understanding sex trafficking by describing the degeneration of San Francisco’s Asian areas, where the sexually permissive culture has turned into prime sex trafficking territory. Many of the women trafficked into the United States are from Southeast Asia — most of them unaware that they will be forced into degrading activities under unimaginable conditions of slavery and abuse. There is, of course, a highly organized logistical network of human traffickers between Korea and the United States. These underground criminals know how to target and recruit vulnerable young women.

It is relatively easy to get the victims into the United States through Mexico or Canada; or through U.S. airport customs with fake passports or student and tourist visas. It is only then that the girls realize their fate and their living hell begins. They are typically hidden away in a locked location until they are broken in and under control. Then, harsh reality sets in. They owe an exorbitant amount of money for their travel and documents, for food, clothing, and rent; their every move is monitored by security doors, surveillance cameras and a cadre of guards and taxi drivers. Often, reports May, the girls remain in seclusion even when they are able to return home to Korea because of their fear that they will run into someone who is part of the network that trafficked them.

The girls’ fears also prevent good prosecution of the criminals because they are so frightened of their captors. Often, the girls are more afraid of their captors than they are of the police, and rightly so. Victims turned witnesses have been burned with acid; they’ve disappeared without a trace; their families have been harmed or threatened. The criminals aren’t really worried about prosecution, as the fines if they are caught are a mere $2,500 with a 60-90 day permit suspension — no big deal at all.

For the victims, however, sex trafficking is a big deal that expands into a larger and larger burden with each hour of their 15-hour-a-day shifts. Each time the girls line up to wait for the customers to choose, it involves agony and degradation in seedy motels, back-alley massage parlors and blacked-out apartments. Many of the girls can speak only a few words of English, so they are totally dependent upon their captors. They are typically small-town girls who have financial troubles and big dreams. May reports that prostitution in South Korea’s 80,000 brothels brings in $21 billions dollars to that small nation’s gross domestic product — about four percent of the total and more than gas and electricity combined. Experts note that the crackdown on the domestic prostitution industry in South Korea has fueled international sex trafficking.

Though You Mi was kept away from the family business, in her childhood her family ran a “room salon” — a small bar that serves drinks and provides dancing as well as private rooms for sex with customers. When the business failed, money was tight for the whole family. You Mi was a prime target for credit card abuse. She got her card and went on a reckless spending spree — fashionable clothes, eating out, entertaining friends and buying American luxury goods. She turned repeatedly to moneylenders and got other credit cards, eventually racking up over $40,000 in debt. The opportunity to go to America seemed like a perfect solution for getting her out of her dilemma. She was, of course, promised that there would be no sex, and she was told that the fees would come out of her earnings.

It didn’t take long after arriving in Mexico for You Mi to discover that she had been duped; by then, it was too late. She was a pawn in an international sex trafficking ring and was sold to a trafficker in the United States, ending up in San Francisco. Only days into her experience, she was an additional $12,000 in debt. You Mi learned that when she earned $200, $100 went to her boss “for her debt” and the other $100 went to the “outcall service.” She got nothing. She also had to pay exorbitant rates for wardrobe and make-up costs.

Meredith May interviewed more than 100 people over nearly a year to confirm You Mi’s story and the details of the sex trafficking situation in South Korea and San Francisco. She read court documents and went inside San Francisco brothels. May met with numerous sex-trafficking officials, visited shelters and interviewed dozens of victims.

You Mi learned some pretty gruesome survival tips: never use drugs with a customer, follow a one-hour rule, always use a condom and close your eyes during group sex. She also learned that she had to be an actress. When she was uncomfortable and unsmiling, she didn’t get chosen and was considered a poor investment to be re-sold for lesser worth. She learned that in order to survive, she had to submit to indignities and endure dozens of sexual encounters each 12-15 hour shift, six days a week. She learned how to get repeat customers and she learned how to increase her “ratings” on the Bay Area Internet ranking system where more than 50,000 reviews are tracked.

Finally, You Mi earned enough to get out and go home. Ironically, her manager gave her $1,000 when she left. Meredith May reported that the managers realize that many of the girls will be back because they can’t make it on the outside, so the managers consider it a “smart business strategy” to have the girls indebted to them.

You Mi is one of the fortunate ones; she was able to get a T-1 visa as part of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Only 1,000 girls have been issued the visas because the victims are required to testify against their captors in order to get the visa. You Mi plans to stay in the United States and plans to marry the customer who helped her escape, but she has lingering health problems and she knows that the trafficking criminals can find her anytime they want to. She is no longer the innocent, trusting young Korean girl who thought she would find the good life in the United States. While she is glad to have escaped and survived, she knows that she will never be the same.

Meredith May reports that You Mi has a “permanent bruise on her soul.”

Janice Crouse’s article summarizes the San Francisco Chronicle four-part series on sex trafficking reported by Meredith May with photographs by Deanne Fitzmaurice. They investigated this story in South Korea, Mexico, and in the United States from Koreatown in Los Angeles to San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

Part I (10/6/06):

Part II (10/8/06):

Part III (10/9/06):

Part IV (10/10/06):

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