Get unlimited digital access to baltimoresun.com. $0.99 for 4 weeks.
News Opinion Editorial

A house of ill repute

There was nothing unusual about the faded yellow house on Belair Road. Its inhabitants mostly kept to themselves and were rarely seen outdoors. Only after federal and state investigators raided the site in May did neighbors learn that the building, which billed itself as an Asian massage parlor, actually served as a front for what authorities say was a sex-trafficking ring that forced women to have sex with as many as 15 to 20 men a day.

All the women were Asian immigrants who, prosecutors say, were shuttled from house to house in what is alleged to have been a multi-state prostitution network along the Eastern seaboard; some of the women apparently were unaware even what state or city they were in. Authorities arrested five people in connection with an investigation into suspected brothels in five states and charged them with conspiracy, racketeering, coercion, money laundering and other crimes.

The raid on the house in Overlea, just across the city line in Baltimore County, threw a rare spotlight on the largely hidden world of human trafficking in Maryland. Neighbors say the Elite Spa operated under their noses for years without anyone realizing what it was or that it existed. Even when they noticed something suspicious, such as the steady stream of men visiting the house, they didn't recognize a crime being committed or know who to call.

And the Elite Spa may represent only the tip of the iceberg. Asian massage parlors are common across the Baltimore-Washington region, and authorities say they often have no way of knowing what goes on inside them without conducting lengthy investigations. A group that advocates for women victimized by human traffickers estimates there may be more than 4,000 such establishments nationwide.

Last year, authorities shut down half a dozen suspected brothels in Baltimore County. Yet the criminals know that laws against trafficking are difficult to enforce, while the potential profits are enormous. Wiretapped conversations between the alleged traffickers in the Overlea investigation suggest they were taking in $1 million a year. Beyond Maryland, human trafficking is a $9 billion-a-year global industry that ranks among organized crime's most profitable enterprises.

Maryland has made important strides in recent years in combating human trafficking. In 2007, the General Assembly passed a law changing child sex trafficking from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison, and this year it approved legislation allowing trafficked victims to have a conviction for prostitution expunged if they can prove they were lured into the trade by force, fraud or coercion.

But tougher laws are still needed against criminals who traffic in adult women, which presently is only a misdemeanor. Authorities should also be able to go after those who knowingly aid and abet human traffickers, such as brothel owners, doorkeepers, drivers and bartenders. Without their tacit cooperation, it would be impossible to keep the violent world of forced prostitution and sexual slavery hidden from view, along with the viciously exploited women and girls who are its main victims.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Prostitution is not a victimless crime

    I read with sadness the editorial "A house of ill repute" (July 28 ) about a house on Bel Air Road in Fullerton. It shattered the notion that prostitution is a victimless crime — these women were trafficked slaves, far from home and anyone who saw them as a person with a heart and soul....

  • Netanyahu's pointless speech
    Netanyahu's pointless speech

    Despite the high political drama surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to a joint meeting of Congress today , he broke little if any new ground. We already knew how he views the U.S.-led negotiations with Tehran over Iran's disputed nuclear program. We are left then...

  • Will the Democratic nominee for 2016 take on the moneyed interests?
    Will the Democratic nominee for 2016 take on the moneyed interests?

    It's seed time for the 2016 presidential election, when candidates try to figure out what they stand for and will run on.

  • Legislation needed to protect foster kids' personal funds
    Legislation needed to protect foster kids' personal funds

    Our state foster care agencies are apparently so underfunded that they are taking resources from abused and neglected children. The agencies are taking control over foster children's Social Security benefits (when the children are disabled or have deceased parents) and using the children's...

  • A lifetime spent in service
    A lifetime spent in service

    After 30 years in the Senate and a half-century of public service to Maryland and the nation, Barbara Mikulski will retire from elected politics next year. She will leave a legacy as one of the state's most admired politicians and among the most influential women ever to serve in Congress.

  • Hillary's email account [Poll]
    Hillary's email account [Poll]
  • Hail Baltimore's happy warrior
    Hail Baltimore's happy warrior

    Barbara Mikulski's surprise announcement that she does not intend to seek a sixth term in the U.S. Senate is going to take time for her constituents to process. That Maryland's favorite daughter, its self-effacing and outspoken champion of the underdog, will not be on the ballot in 2016 (or...

  • Contenders for Mikulski's seat
    Contenders for Mikulski's seat

    Political observers in Maryland will soon be treated to a rare phenomenon: a battle royal for an open United States Senate seat.

Comments
Loading