The Results are In: Sex Trafficking at the Superbowl

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the incredible outreach efforts which took place in Miami to find child trafficking victims who were brought in and sold for sex during the Superbowl. This week, I checked in with Brad Dennis, Director of Search Operations for the KlaasKids Foundation, to see what the outreach team he was leading found. And the results are in! So far, their efforts have led to at least one arrest of a Hawaiian man who was importing kids to be sold in prostitution during the Superbowl. But more importantly, they may have prevented more children from being recruited by pimps.

The over 160 outreach workers who participated in the effort came away with little doubt that children were being sold for sex during the Superbowl. Throughout the four days of outreach, 23 direct contacts were made with potential commercial sexual exploitation victims. Local law enforcement personnel commented about the increase in numbers of potential victims, more than would usually be found in Miami at that time. There was also a significant increase in online advertisements such as and With all signs pointing to sex trafficking of children, the outreach team were able to find and pass on nine leads on potential child trafficking situations to law enforcement, for follow-up after the big game.

The greatest successes of the outreach, however, were the direct interventions and increased awareness of the issue. Six missing children were recovered during the outreach sweeps. Workers also directly intervened in four potentially dangerous situations, removing five girls from potential recruitment or exploitation by pimps. The other success story was the increase in awareness of child sex trafficking for local groups, law enforcement, faith-based organizations and through the media. If Miami during the Superbowl seemed like fruitful hunting ground for pimps looking to sell children into prostitution, they soon found out they were very wrong.


Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 9:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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Police Look Up “Prostitution” in the Dictionary, Confusion Reigns

According to a November 2009 study out of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes against Children Research Center (CCRC), some law enforcement agencies have gotten the memo re: underage prostitution, and others have filed it in the trash right alongside their TPS reports. The latter group continues to classify juvenile prostitutes as delinquents, rather than victims, and would sooner arrest and prosecute these “criminals” than help them escape a life of coercion, threats, and countless forms of abuse. Needless to say, Bill Lumbergh would not be proud.

In fact, I recently contacted Bill, who had the following to say: “Yeah, police officers … So, if you could go ahead and, uh, actually protect and serve the citizens your community? That would be terrific … Okay? Thanks.”

No one really wants to please Mr. Lumbergh, but seriously, it would be oh-so-helpful all around if law enforcement could begin to see underage prostitution for what it is: Forced. Damaging. Rape.

Regardless of how a minor lands into a life of prostitution, it is practically a given that emotional and physical manipulation keeps her there. “Glamorous” as the job is, complicated as the feelings are (see: Stockholm syndrome), it is also pretty much a given that she wants –- needs -– to get out. Logically, reasonably, law enforcement, child protection, and mental health agencies should then step in with their training and services to recognize the exploitative situation for what it is and assist that individual.


Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 8:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Seven Doctors and a Nurse Enslaved in Venezuela

There is a common stereotype that those who fall victim to modern-day slavery are uneducated, unskilled, or maybe just not that bright. Well, that’s about as true as saying all women who are raped are slutty or all men get cancer are smokers. Sure, some people end up in trafficking situations because of a lack of education or desperation to gain financial resources. But trafficking victims can also be intelligent and well-educated. Take the recent case of seven medical doctors and one registered nurse who were trafficked from Cuba to Venezuela where they held in debt bondage in exchange for oil given to Cuba. Medical professionals trafficked? Yes, it happens.

The scheme was apparently part of the “Oil for Manpower” deal which Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez entered into in 2000. The deal was that Cuba would send trained professionals to work in Venezuela in exchange for heavily subsidized oil. The important point that the manpower be voluntary, however, seems not to have made it into the deal.

The eight Cuban medical professionals claim they were pushed into the program by dire economic circumstances and political pressure to join in Cuba. Once in Venezuela, they were held in crowded lodgings or with people associated with the Venezuelan government, unable to leave the country. They were forced to work seven days a week. The program officials kept them under 24 hour surveillance, and they were not allowed to leave their compound or speak to anyone not affiliated with the regime.

The doctors and nurse thought about escaping, but they knew if they returned to Cuba they would be punished for insubordination. The “Oil for Manpower” program benefits Cuba immensely, and the men and women feared what would happen to them if they returned. In the end, they knew their best hope was to make it to the United States. They finally managed to escape their captors, and went into hiding for five months while trying to figure out how to make their way to safety. Eventually, they found their way into Miami, and are now safe. The eight professionals have filed a lawsuit against Cuba, Venezuela, and a Venezuelan oil company.


Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 2:52 pm  Comments (1)  
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Boycott Online Pimp Craigslist; Use Kijiji Instead

The abolitionist community has known for a while that Craigslist is, to be frank, an online pimp. Police departments from Ohio to Florida to California are finding children and adult human trafficking victims in Craigslist’s new “adult services” section. And while the company claims to be screening ads, looking for signs of exploitation, Craigslist has been about as transparent as a lead safe in their procedures, staffing, and training requirements.

In fact, Craigslist still posts 3.5 million adult services ads each year — most of which are illegal — and some activists are calling it the #1 place to advertise human trafficking victims for sex. But you can tell Craigslist enough is enough, by boycotting their exploitative services and using the more ethical alternative, has almost everything Craiglist does, with the notable exception of adult services and sexy classified ads. You can sell the stuff you found while cleaning out the garage, buy the stuff someone else found cleaning out their garage, meet someone to work out with, apply for a job, rent a beach house … you get the picture. Kijiji, however, has made a conscious choice to ban the sorts of ads which traffickers use to sell women and children for sex. The result is an online marketplace which is completely free and completely safe for kids (and people who just really don’t want to see an up close photo of a stranger’s genitals).


Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 10:32 am  Comments (1)  
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The happy hooker myth is a far cry from reality

The myth of the so-called “happy hooker” — an Irish Belle de Jour who enjoys her work in the sex trade — was exploded when the criminal empire of Thomas Carroll came crashing down.

Carroll’s victims in Ireland and Britain were all vulnerable, in many cases trafficked from Africa, and some were as young as 15 when they were flown to Ireland under false pretences.

The case shed new light on the twilight world of the Irish sex trade, which is now multi-dimensional.

Now Irish criminal gangs are joined by shadowy gangs from eastern Europe, including Romania, Albania and Russia, and Africa — especially Nigeria. Chinese gangs are also running lucrative massage parlour operations in the same way as brothels.

Carroll, 48, his wife Shamiela Clark, 32, and his daughter Toma Carroll, 26, were sentenced after admitting money laundering. The early admission in the case meant that the full details of the police investigation both here and in the UK were not revealed.

Thomas Carroll and Clark also pleaded guilty to conspiring to control prostitutes, including women who were trafficked into Ireland from Portugal, Venezuela, Brazil and Nigeria.

Thomas Carroll was jailed for seven years and Clark for three-and-a-half years. Toma Carroll was jailed for two years but was freed immediately because of time spent in custody awaiting trial.

Thomas Carroll and Clark moved their “headquarters” to Castlemartin, Pembrokeshire, Wales, after the gardai uncovered the prostitution ring running in the Republic and the North.

All the women, who were mainly from South America, Portugal and Nigeria, worked as prostitutes here, in Britain and the North, with some moving around to different locations to ensure customers always had “fresh” faces to choose from.

Six of the women had been trafficked and forced into prostitution.

It is a trap that many women find almost impossible to escape from, according to Geraldine Rowley of Ruhama, which works with women involved in prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation, including women who are victims of sex trafficking.

“Though there have been instances when the State, through the gardai, have managed to free women, in most cases, girls have to free themselves from their traffickers, which is risky and dangerous and demands they display both courage and resilience,” she says.

“When a woman is a victim of trafficking, it does not mean in the majority of cases that she is physically chained or in a locked room with the windows barred — though that does happen.

“In most cases, it is their minds that are imprisoned. All the women who were the victims in the Carroll case were allowed to come and go and let out during the day. They worked on their own but they were constantly under the control of Carroll and his gang,” she adds.

It has now emerged that all the women trafficked were from Nigeria and came from Benin City and the surrounding rural areas in the state of Edo in the south-west of the country.

Some 80 per cent of the women from Nigeria who have come to the attention of the authorities here came from this area. All had taken part in ceremonies or traditional African rituals where they swore an oath to do what they were told.

This ceremony is an important part of their belief system. When they swear the oath, they do not know that they are being sent to another country to work in the sex trade. Many think they are going abroad for education or other work.

In the Carroll case, some of the women were told they were going to Ireland to work as seamstresses.

But when they arrived here the reality was different and they were working as prostitutes within days of arrival. In their own minds, they were tied by the oath of obedience.

In a statement supplied to police, one of the girls told how she suffered verbal abuse because she was crying. She was told this was “putting the customers off”. It is understood the girl was just 17.

As part of the oath, they were told by a shaman or witch doctor back in their home country that they would die, or someone they loved would die, if they did not adhere to this code of obedience.

Once here, the control was copperfastened by threats of violence. Many were assaulted.

Until three or four years ago, Nigerian prostitutes did not work in Ireland — now they form the biggest foreign cohort working in the sex trade — though Brazilian women have also been sent here, or arrived of their own volition over the last few years.

According to Ms Rowley, some of the girls are very intelligent, though poorly schooled. Many of those who have escaped the clutches of traffickers have made extremely good progress since they went back into education.

Many of the women were born into difficult and abusive families and into poverty. In some cases, there is a background of sexual abuse. It means they are the perfect targets for the traffickers and the sexual exploiters.

Putting it in very cold business terms, the traffickers have realised that this part of Nigeria is a rich harvesting ground filled with a human commodity — women who are easy to control and ripe for exploitation.

Because of their status as aliens in this country, the women are almost entirely in fear of going to the authorities and they come from a culture where corruption is rife. They believe only those with money can expect that their complaints to police will have any impact.

“If you ask any of these women ‘Why didn’t you go to the police’, they just look at you. They would say to us ‘you need money to go to the police’,” says Ms Rowley.

“The traffickers in their home country would have the money and, therefore, in the minds of the girls, they would have the power,” she added.

Many of the women who are undocumented become dependent on their pimps to protect them from the authorities. It is this climate of fear that keeps them under control and afraid to strike for their freedom.

“I think the Carroll case did shock people. These stories even shock us,” says Ms Rowley.

“They are horrendous on a human level. As part of the ritual back in Edo to ensure obedience, one woman was put in a coffin during this ritual. This was to show her ‘If you don’t obey this is what will happen to you’.”

Ruhama is seeing 20 to 30 new women each year who have been victims of trafficking and sold into the sex industry under duress. A majority of women who are coming to Ireland, albeit from countries of poverty, do come of their own free will to work in the sex industry.

“Some of them would pay their own flight over and they would get a percentage of the money they earn but those six women involved in the Carroll case got no money and lived in terrible conditions. On the scale of exploitation, they would be extreme cases.”

What has been noticeable in recent years is that on- street prostitution is at much lower levels in Ireland. But there remains a number of women who take their chances on the street — falling prey to violence and sexual assault from punters.

“They are not going indoors because they are not going to allow anyone to control them. There is a myth out there about indoor prostitution. They call it high-class, but most of it takes place in dingy flats in unhygienic conditions,” Ms Rowley says.

Most of the women now involved in on-street prostitution are dealing with some form of addiction — either drugs or alcohol.

“What we find is that they go down the street and if they are not strung out they will call it a day when they have enough money made.”

Ruhama has a van working on the streets at night-time and sometimes the girls will get a lift back to where they live at their own time of choosing.

For most of these women working the streets, there is no pimp saying ‘you have to go with that client’. They can look into a car and sum up the potential customer and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and decide which sexual services they will offer.

But Ms Rowley says that even though they are not under the control of a pimp, most are pushed in the direction of the sex trade by financial circumstances. Many have had abusive or difficult childhoods, abusive adult relationships and dependency on alcohol or other forms of drugs.

There are always some women who choose to come here to work in the sex trade. But they quickly become dependent and have to pay the shadowy figures who set them up in apartment blocks or organise their advertising on websites. Some are paying protection money to criminal gangs, especially in the midlands and the west of Ireland.

“Some women who have come into Ruhama have said that their pimp had a gun. There are only a small group of women who can manage to keep themselves safe and have their book of regular clients, but they are few and far between,” says Ms Rowley.

“The nature of the business is that men want variety. They want different women and criminals have found that it is best to move them around a good bit.”

In the past decade or so, four women who have worked in the sex trade in Ireland have been murdered.

Last year, at the Belfast trial of a Chinese Triad human trafficker known as a “snakehead”, it emerged that a 22-year-old Chinese prostitute called Qu Mei Na was strangled and left in the boot of a car. It was learned that she had been abandoned as a baby as part of the harsh “one-child” culture in parts of China, through which female children are shunned, sold or simply killed by their family.

She was forced into sex slavery after paying Triad human traffickers to get her into Europe.

Her traffickers got her into Dublin on a student visa through one of the fake foreign student colleges before she went to Belfast in 2002.

A particular cause for concern with Ruhama is their difficulty in making any real contact with the vice trade involving Chinese women.

“We have been unable to help any Chinese women by getting them into our programme,” Ms Rowley says.

“Methods of control can change between the different ethnic groups and there is evidence that many of the Chinese women are trapped in some sort of debt bondage.

“The women are told that they owe exorbitant sums of money to pay for the travel to Ireland and their accommodation. That is one of the ways they lure women in.

“The trouble is the debt can never be paid off and they are trapped,” says the Ruhama spokeswoman.

“The Chinese community is so closely knit that it is hard to make inroads. There are different telephone numbers for the Chinese brothels which all link back to a main switchboard so it means that if the gardai move in and close a premises, they can just move on and set up again somewhere else with the same telephone numbers.”

Ireland is one of the most expensive places to buy sex, which means massive profits for the pimps, and is one of the reasons why foreign criminals have targeted this country.

Ms Rowley believes that we need a new Sexual Offences Bill to tackle the new modus operandi of the criminals, and to address the use of mobile phones and the use of the internet.

“And I think that the telephone companies need to take corporate responsibility. They should be shutting down numbers which are being used for prostitution and they should be supplying intelligence to the gardai,” she says.


Ex-Spur Robertson linked to sex ring

Courtesy photo
Alvin Robertson

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Racquel Mcintosh

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Murtuza K. Bhavnagerwala

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Behzad Mehrinfar

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Leslie Roy Campbell

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Marques A. Callaway

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Jack August Zimmerle

Authorities have busted up a sex-trafficking ring accused of forcing a 14-year-old girl to have sex with men throughout San Antonio and Corpus Christi.

Linked to the ring is former Spurs guard and four-time NBA All-Star Alvin Robertson.

Seven people allegedly are tied to the ring, including an R&B performer and a man charged with bribing an official at Kelly USA, a business park at the former air base.

Of the seven, Robertson — who played for the Spurs from 1984 to 1989 and was a one-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year — was the last to be arrested Friday, said Deputy Ino Badillo, a spokesman for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office.

Robertson was arrested shortly after 4 p.m. in Bentonville, Ark., where he was to attend a basketball shooting clinic this weekend that featured him and former NBA player Ricky Pierce.

Lt. Jon Simpson of the Bentonville Police Department told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Robertson appeared shocked when arrested.

The girl, who’s now back with her parents in San Antonio, was kidnapped in March 2009 and forced into prostitution after running away from home, officials said.

She also was taken to Corpus Christi, where her captor allegedly forced her to dance at a topless club that now faces sanctions by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

The girl escaped March 30, 2009, from Leslie Roy Campbell, 49, and reported him to Corpus Christi police, opening an investigation here that lasted three months and culminated in Friday’s arrests by the Bexar County Human Trafficking Task Force, Badillo said.

The task force works with agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which investigates human trafficking of or by foreigners in the U.S., said Jerry Robinette, special agent in charge of ICE in San Antonio.

Investigators found no unauthorized immigrants were involved, and the crimes appear to have occurred within Texas, resulting in state charges rather than federal.

Robertson is charged with trafficking of persons under 18 for prostitution, sexual assault of a child and sexual performance of a child, all felonies.

Badillo said Robertson is believed to have had sex with the girl, but also described Robertson as a “facilitator,” which means involved in forcing the girl into prostitution.

Three alleged “johns” were charged in the case with sexual assault of a child: Murtuza K. Bhavnagerwala, 36, Behzad Mehrinfar, 25, and Jack A. Zimmerle, 40.

Robertson’s girlfriend, Racquel McIntosh, 41, was charged with sexual performance of a child and trafficking of persons under 18 for prostitution.

Campbell was charged with sexual performance of a child, trafficking, sexual assault of a child and aggravated kidnapping.

Marques A. Callaway, 35, who performs “Southern R&B,” was charged with aggravated kidnapping.

Zimmerle, Callaway and Mehrinfar were released Friday after posting $75,000 bail each. The others remained jailed Friday night, including Campbell, who’s serving time in a Beeville prison on sexual assault of a child charges.

Last year, the San Antonio Express-News reported the girl ran away from home and was kidnapped by Campbell. He pleaded guilty to sexual assault earlier this month in Nueces County, officials said.

The girl escaped from Campbell’s Corpus Christi home while he was in the shower, flagged down a passing patrol car and reported that she’d been kidnapped and sexually assaulted for a week. She also told investigators Campbell gave her a fake ID and forced her to strip at Club Cheetah there.

Badillo said the task force then began investigating Robertson and the other suspects after the girl complained she was taken throughout Bexar County to have sex in exchange for money.

The strip club later sued the girl, her parents, Campbell and Corpus Christi police, claiming the business was “flimflammed” and its operators question the girl’s sequence of events that brought her to the club.

Before his arrest Friday, Zimmerle was facing trial in March on a charge of paying kickbacks to then-Kelly USA real estate manager Ray Crosby for favorable treatment on bids submitted by Enviro-Tech, a company Zimmerle helped operate.

Crosby pleaded guilty and is to testify against Zimmerle as part of his deal, First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg said.

Zimmerle maintains his innocence in both cases, said his lawyer, Jay Norton.

“I imagine (the new case) is going to delay the trial,” Norton said.


Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 7:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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Modern-Slavery Museum rolls into Collier County to teach about farmworkers’ struggles

Beginning Sunday, a replica of the cargo truck used to enslave Immokalee tomato farmworkers in the latest case will be on a statewide tour.

For the first time, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will kick off a six-week tour with the Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum — a mobile educational vehicle with multimedia displays on the history of slavery in the state, including its roots, the reasons it continues today and its solutions.

For more than a month, the coalition has been developing exhibits after consulting with leading academic officials on slavery and labor history in Florida.

“The every day abusive condition in Florida agriculture creates the fertile soil in which slavery can take root,” said Jordan Buckley, a member of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida.

The museum will be open and free to the public. It will visit Naples on Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at First Christian Church, 1789 Mandarin Road and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at North Naples United Methodist Church, 6000 Goodlette-Frank Road, and on Thursday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at First Christian Church.

The cargo truck that will be touring is similar to the truck that workers were enslaved by crews for two Immokalee growers in 2007, Buckley said.

Family members padlocked their workers in trucks and charged them $5 to bathe in the backyard with a garden hose, according to court documents.

Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete, who are brothers, each received a 12-year sentence in federal prison for enslaving undocumented farmworkers from Mexico and Guatemala. The Navarrete case was just the latest example of human slavery to happen in Southwest Florida — the seventh forced labor conviction in Florida agriculture in recent years.

“There is real slavery in the fields of Florida. This is not about lousy jobs, but violent control, vicious exploitation, and the potential for serious harm and even death,” Kevin Bales, the Pulitzer Prize nominated author and president of Free the Slaves, said in a prepared statement. “Even more heartbreaking is the fact that there has never been a day in the history of Florida agriculture without some amount of slavery tainting the food grown there. That food leaves the hands of slaves and ends up in the meals we eat with our families.”

He added that the coalition’s new traveling museum helps the public learn what needs to be known in order to end this crime.

Currently, Publix is buying from two companies involved in the 2008 slavery case, Buckley said, referring to slavery victims that were taken to work on farms owned by Six L’s and Pacific Tomato Growers.

Meanwhile, an ongoing demand from the coalition is for the Publix grocery store chain to adopt a code of conduct that would include a zero tolerance on slavery and for the grocery chain to engage in a conversation directly with the coalition.

The coalition has successfully reached agreements to improve wages and working conditions for workers who pick tomatoes: Whole Foods, Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King and Yum! Brands.

The following have endorsed the museum: Amnesty International USA, Anti-Slavery International, Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, Free the Slaves, Freedom Network USA, Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships, and National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.

The museum tour will culminate as the cargo truck leads the coalition’s Farmworker Freedom March from April 16-18, when hundreds of farmworkers and their allies are expected to march from Tampa to Lakeland, headquarters of the Publix supermarket chain.

“This is a living museum that restores the right to life,” Bales said in a prepared statement.

To download an advance copy of the booklet that will accompany the Modern-Day Slavery Museum, visit

* * * * *

The Modern-Day Slavery Museum tour schedule:

■ In Cape Coral, from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday at Grace United Methodist Church, 13 21st Place S.E.; from 2 to 5 p.m. at St. Katharine Drexel Parish, 1922 20th Ave. S.W.

■ In Fort Myers, from 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday at St. Columbkille Parish, 12171 Iona Road.

■ In Fort Myers, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday at Quality Life Center, 3210 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.; 6 to 8 p.m. at Broadway Palm Theatre, 1380 Colonial Blvd.

■ In Fort Myers, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Bishop Verot High School, 5598 Sunrise Drive.

■ In Naples, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday at First Christian Church, 1789 Mandarin Road; 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at North Naples United Methodist Church, 6000 Goodlette-Frank Road.

■ In Naples, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at First Christian Church, 1789 Mandarin Road.

■ In Venice, from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 10, at Epiphany Cathedral, 350 Tampa Avenue West.

■ In Sarasota, from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 12, at Church of the Palms Presbyterian Church, 3224 Bee Ridge Road.

■ In Sarasota, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 13, at Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, 3023 Proctor Road; from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at St. Thomas More Parish, 2506 Gulf Gate Drive.


Human trafficking suspect arrested again

A 39-year-old man charged last year in Edmonton’s first alleged case of human trafficking has been arrested again.

Xiu Sheng Chen is accused of breaching conditions of a court order, police said Friday.

He was arrested Wednesday in New Market, Ont., on a Canada-wide warrant.

Last September, Edmonton police launched an investigation into a suspected bawdy house and human trafficking case involving Sachi Professional Massage and Spa at 175 Street and 100 Avenue, said EPS spokeswoman Lisa Lammi

With the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency, EPS investigators conducted two search warrants in the early morning hours of Sept. 5, 2009, one at the business and another at an apartment on 69 Avenue and 199 Street belonging to a person connected to the business.

A man and a woman were arrested upon leaving the business and four women who remained inside the business were taken into custody. Three of those women – aged 21-41 – were allegedly victims of human trafficking.

Police at the time said that the women were victims of “modern-day slavery.”

Cops said the victims came from foreign countries to work in the massage industry, but instead were stripped of their identification documents, threatened, and forced to perform sex acts 24 hours a day, seven days a week for several weeks.

Mounties said the charges were the first human trafficking charges laid in Western Canada.

Human trafficking has only been in the Criminal Code since 2005.


The bittersweet Olympics

The 2010 Olympics should not happen. At least that was my first thought regarding this year’s Winter Games, but that didn’t stop me from jumping at the chance to go when I was offered a free flight and accommodations- I mean who wouldn’t . . . right?

Once in Vancouver, it’s hard not to get swept up in the Olympic fervour. After a flight cancellation due to fog and waiting in line for an hour with Toronto-bound travelers, I was placed on a direct flight to Vancouver International- the starting point for most Olympiad enthusiasts and thousands of visitors during the games.

It didn’t take long for conflicting emotions to arise. How much money had the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games spent on massive renovations or the new, pristine Skytrain line extension to the airport- the Canada Line- while hundreds of homeless Vancouverites still walk the East Side? But be still my frustrated mind, maybe there is more to these games than the shortcomings of its governing bodies.

Wandering around the University of British Columbia campus- home of the Thunderbird Arena hosting Ice Hockey- one can glimpse the excitement throbbing in the downtown core. Flag poles adorned with the Olympic regalia lining the streets, the waves of smiling aqua shirt Volunteers and the faux-torch you can get a snapshot with are just on campus teasers of what is in the city’s heart. Olympic pride is intoxicating, even for someone who was predominately Anti-Olympics- as if VANOC somehow released a gas over Vancouver to quell the nay-sayers and drug them with nationalistic pride. It merely took pedestrians in Team Canada apparel or a stranger in the distance cheering “Go Canada!” to make my heart palpate and my head feel I was part of something bigger.

Once I got the chance to settle down in front of a computer, I created a make-shift list of free events I was going to attend- having not enough forethought to plan ahead or the money to attend any real events. My first choice of venues was the Heineken or Holland House, which opened at 8 p.m. and featured famous DJs from the Netherlands. Until my sister burst through the door and announced that Stephen Colbert was filming episodes of the Colbert Report live from a stage on the waterfront the next day. In the meantime my sister and I braved our way through the throngs of people downtown just after Canada beat Norway 7–0 in Men’s Hockey.

The smell of hotdog stands, stale beer and pot perforated the air of Granville Street, the hub of Vancouver’s party scene. Being a Tuesday and still a work night for most Vancouverites, the streets were not as crowded as I expected. However, buskers and waves of red and white were still present. We decided to stop in at Robson Square to check out the laser and light show Ignite the Dream. Backed by vocals from Canadian artists, the light show featured enough Canadian pride to make anyone queasy under normal circumstances, but fortunately for the designers of this electro-light orchestra, the Olympics make for citizens who revel and bathe in over-the-top nationalistic fervour. That point was further proven upon passing The Bay, where we saw the four to six hour line for official Olympic Wear.

With our alarms set for 7 a.m. we slept briefly before arriving at the waterfront for Colbert’s performance. We were thankful for my sister’s friend; an avid Colbert fan who had been in line since 5:45 a.m. and was holding a spot for both of us. While waiting in line, we speculated about Colbert’s entrance. Would he propel down from a helicopter assisted by a flock of eagles? Would a whale breach the surface, Colbert emerging from its gullet to be swiftly carried by an eagle to stage? Unfortunately for us, these fantasies weren’t realized, but his mere presence set off a wave of excitement as intense as the games themselves. Michael Bublé sang the Canadian national anthem to the tune of Star Spangled Banner with Colbert. Michael Eruzione confessed that the Olympics were essentially the “UN in tight Lycra” or “where the world fights its proxy wars on ice.” And ultimately, Bob Costas rode a taxidermy Moose.

When the magic was over, we split off from the main group and made our way through Chinatown, Hastings and Gastown to reach the Cauldron. I got my first real taste of Anti-Olympic sentiment walking through the East Side- billings and anti-games graffiti prominent on the sides of buildings. Such sentiment was less apparent throughout the rest of city, but loomed just below the surface. VANOC and the IOC received considerable criticism for their attempt to deal with the regular tenants of the Downtown East Side.

Vancouver has one of the highest rates of homelessness in Canada and VANOC’s feeble effort to displace thousands of homeless from the streets brought more attention to this issue- most protestors carry anti-poverty and pro-housing project placards. Those who wish to protest the Olympics and Paralympics for the entire duration of the games can find solace in the Tent City set up at Pigeon Park, the central hub for the homeless.

Another noticeable aspect of Chinatown and East Hastings is that next to the occasional “Go Canada! Gold!” signs in shop windows, it’s hard to tell the city is hosting the games. The organizing bodies’ worries about Olympic inspired chaos seem to be unfounded. A hum of excitement runs through the city, but aside from the masked protestors smashing The Bay windows, the crowds have been tame.

Despite broad criticism of the Winter Olympics, the Pride House on Davie Street has garnered significant positive feedback. Professional sports are still predominately conservative and masculine (perhaps with the exception of figure skating) which makes it hard for athletes, organizers, coaches and others involved to come out publicly. However in the wake of hockey’s Brian Hirsk coming out- who recently died in a car crash- and the Pride House being erected, a gate opened for those who have kept their sexual orientation a secret in fear of shame and rejection from fellow athletes and the public.

Once we reached downtown, we decided to check out the Aboriginal Pavilion located in the Pan Pacific Hotel. Much criticism has been levied at VANOC for not focusing enough on Aboriginals before and during the Olympics. Aboriginal Tourism BC organized the majority of Aboriginal venues and events which featured live dances, local artists from Squamish, Haida, Musqueme and other Aboriginal nations as well as talks for anyone interested in Canada’s Aboriginal culture and history.

Our last stop for the day was to check out the infamous Olympic Cauldron. Unfortunately, the Cauldron was surrounded by an eight foot chain link fence and the only way to take an unobstructed photo was to wait in line for over an hour to scale the stairs. VANOC was in negotiations to use a lower fence and has since switched to a clear plastic barrier. Because of protests preceding and during the first days of the games, there are concerns that the Cauldron could be defaced. This seems unlikely given the 24-hour security and hoards of pro-Olympic fan boys who would not hesitate to tackle any vandals, but VANOC refuses to dismantle the wall between the ultimate symbol of the games and its adoring public.

Later on, while crossing the Granville Bridge, we heard yodeling. It seems that before we even reached Granville Island, we found the Swiss House. Not only was there yodelling at the Swiss House, authentic Swiss pork sausages, slices of rye bread covered with sauerkraut and cheese and, of course, the famed Swiss protein crackers were served, all backed by a stand up bassist and an accordion player.

The Heineken House would be the ultimate way to cap off the 2010 experience on a student budget. The venue was touted to hold up to 4,000 and I was determined to be one of those non-Dutch attendees.

On the bus heading to the Richmond Oval, or the aptly named O-Zone, everyone erupted into a rendition of “O Canada” in tribute to the Men’s Hockey Team who had just won a close game against Team Switzerland. The Thursday crowds were the largest yet thanks to the recent Canadian win. The celebratory air increased tenfold as chants and horns blasted throughout the core. Even away from the Skytrain’s considerable crowd, Olympic gusto was prevalent.

When we got to the Heineken House we learned that it was at capacity, but I was willing to wait until it emptied a bit. Apparently, though, once the House reaches capacity they close it off to the public until the next day. The only way to get in is with a Dutch passport. Attempts to barter our way in or sneak around the back failed, but just across the field Our Lady Peace was playing a free concert. I briefly treated my inner 15-year-old.

Leaving about 20 minutes later, my attention was drawn to a pile of flyers. As I inspected one, I felt a little crestfallen. They called attention to the notorious sex trafficking industry- especially of underage girls- in Canada. The Olympics have become a podium not only for athletes, but for human rights, animal rights and environmental activists to have their voices heard while the world watches Vancouver.

It’s difficult to say whether the apparent success of the games in the face of much criticism is due to the competency of the organizing bodies or the work of thousands of volunteers and proud Canadians who have made this event so memorable and enjoyable for millions of participants and viewers. It is easy to get swept up in the Olympics in the host city- as easy as it is to judge from a distance. Becoming the host city and province has infected the majority of West Coast occupants- one can expect great service and smiles with the politeness Canadians are known and mocked for.

Raised awareness of rights violations and the undercutting tactics of the governing bodies, like the attempted exodus of the homeless to an abandoned mental asylum or the $16 million in education funding cuts alongside a post-secondary tuition increase, may result in the stronger enforcement of laws and regulations being required of host nations before the Olympics can take place on their soil.

Until then, the Olympics and Paralympics will always take precedence over a majority of issues in the host country. Hopefully everyone will get a glimpse of the IOC’s increasing accountability when all eyes turn to London for the 2012 Summer Games.


Geena Davis, The Duchess of York, and Muslim Philanthropists Walk Into a Bar

Sure it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s actually the beginning of a beautiful partnership. And, perhaps, the most interesting night of that bartender’s life. That’s because American actress Geena Davis, Britain’s Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, and the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists have joined forces with a number of other celebrities and organizations to tackle the empowerment of women. They may be a motley crew, but one that promises to get the job done.

Team Davis-Duchess-Dogooders pointed out at the UN this week that a key part of empowering women around the world is ending violence against women, and especially sexual violence. They’ve asked for zero tolerance from the UN on the use of rape as a weapon of war, domestic violence, sex trafficking, honor killings, and female genital mutilation.

Separately, each of these players have been heavyweights on this issue. Geena Davis, famous for playing the first female president on the short-lived series Commander in Chief, founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and its programming arm, See Jane. Her efforts have been focused on reducing negative stereotyping of both men and women in the media. Sarah Ferguson has created the new Mother’s Army program in the UK, which is aimed educating and empowering mothers.

But perhaps the most exciting announcement can from Tariq Cheema, founder and chair of the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists. He announced the launch of a brand new global initiative called “Empowerment Through Enlightenment,” which would focus on addressing violence against women and gender inequality from two sides: men and women. The project will focus on education and awareness about the issue for men, as well as skill-building opportunities to women. This sort of leadership on not only empowering women, but also educating men, coming from the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists is indicative of a growing commitment to this issue globally.