By Shawn Raymundo
Human trafficking is a widespread problem that can be found in just about every community of Orange County, Anaheim Police Sgt. Juan Reveles said.
As a member of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, a multi-agency initiative charged with bringing down criminal organizations that traffic women for sex work, Reveles said no community in Orange County has been left untouched.
“When I tell you that no community is (safe from the problem), what that translates to is there is no community in Orange County that we have not had an investigation in,” Reveles said, largely referring to illicit massage parlors that offer erotic services involving sexual contact.
“I can say that across the entire Orange County there are over 200 illegal massage parlors,” Reveles said. “That gives you a perspective as to how big this problem is … they’re all illegal and there’s not enough time to address all of them.”
The task force is comprised of members from such entities as California Highway Patrol, the OC District Attorney’s office, Orange County Social Services and other police departments from Irvine, Newport Beach and Santa Ana.
Up until last year, Reveles said, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department was a partner, but it has since developed its own unit to tackle the human trafficking issue within its contract cities, including San Clemente.
Recognizing that there’s not a “single magic bullet” to end human trafficking, Reveles said cities that have made amendments to strengthen municipal codes on massage parlors can make it more difficult for an illicit massage operator to pose as a legitimate business.
Locally, steps have been taken at the city level to give law enforcement more authority when it comes to addressing the illicit massage market in San Clemente.
AMENDING SAN CLEMENTE’S LAWS
A series of proposed amendments to the city’s laws that govern massage parlors will soon go before the city council for consideration, as the planning commission last month approved recommendations intended to further combat human trafficking in Orange County.
The proposed ordinance, if passed by the council, would give local law enforcement additional oversight of the business sector in San Clemente, hold landlords more accountable for tenants operating illicit massage parlors, and add certain restrictions to legitimate businesses.
Amendments to the city’s municipal code, which the planning commission unanimously voted in favor of on July 8, came from i-5 Freedom Network, the San Clemente-based nonprofit that’s worked to raise awareness to the issue of human trafficking and to support survivors.
Although Brenda Wells, founder and executive director of i-5 Freedom, expressed gratitude for the planning commission’s approval, she noted that it took “way too long for this to happen,” as the group first implored the city to make the changes in 2017.
“I’m glad they took it back up,” she said. “I was happy the planning commission and the staff took the ordinance proposal seriously and researched them and found them all to be sound and appropriate.”
Planning Commissioner Don Brown expressed similar sentiments, noting that it’s taken years to overcome a previous state law that tied the hands of cities when it came to enforcing local ordinances on massage businesses. What resulted, he said, was an explosion of illicit establishments.
“This ordinance was a great effort, and I think it’s ready to go,” he said, adding: “This has come a long way. I’m ready to pass this on to the council.”
Fellow Commissioner Michael Blackwell echoed Brown’s sentiment, stating that the ordinance is thorough and has come a long way.
One of the key provisions in the ordinance is the involvement of the owners of commercial properties who lease space to massage parlors, making them more responsible for their tenants.
According to the draft ordinance, if a massage parlor is found to be in violation of the city’s code, prompting a revocation of the business license, a landlord is responsible for fines and is also prohibited from renting the same space to another massage business for at least two years.
As for the operators of massage parlors, they would be required to shut off all illuminated signs at the close of business, keep well-lit entrances, ensure that entries and exits are kept in visible locations and remove locks from all rooms dedicated for massages. They would also be subject to unannounced inspections from city personnel.
If passed, the ordinance would also give San Clemente Police Services—through OCSD—the authority to review a prospective massage operator’s application for permits and business licenses, as well as background information.
“While Planning staff has historically reviewed background information required for a massage establishment, this change will appropriately place review and verification on background information with Police Services,” the city said in its July 8 report to the planning commission.
Currently, existing establishments are also required to renew their business license annually, which is reviewed by the city’s planning and business license staff. Under the proposed ordinance, police services would also conduct a review of the license renewal.
TARGETING ILLICIT ACTIVITY
Giving law enforcement oversight of the local industry and the authority to conduct background checks, Wells and Reveles said, could help authorities eradicate the root of illicit massage businesses—the criminal syndicates behind the market that traffic the women for sex work.
“Criminals are going to be criminals,” Wells acknowledged, noting that criminal organizations often find ways of eluding law enforcement. Just because a prospective operator applies for the license “doesn’t mean they’re the ultimate owner; they’re part of the larger network.”
Reveles said that giving police services that authority adds another layer of scrutinizing applications. In doing so, he said, law enforcement can see where the applicant has operated a parlor before and find out whether he or she has been cited or shut down for illicit activity in other parts of the state and county.
Both Reveles and Wells stressed that the illicit massage market in the U.S often is linked to organized crime, which brings in women from other countries—China, most often—to perform erotic massages on clientele in America, traditionally referred to as Johns.
Citing a study of illicit massage businesses (IMBs) in 2018 and 2019 by Herick Research, Wells said that more than 84% of IMBs in the U.S. are managed by Chinese immigrants who rely on a “Chinese supply chain” or network of women from mainland China.
The study found that the network “appears active in all 50 states, although Flushing, New York, and the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles play an outsized role in the broader” supply chain.
Wells further explained that the women, while in their home country, are targeted by visa brokers to come work in the U.S. A trafficker will usually pay a visa broker about $30,000 to $50,000 to get the women to the U.S. Once here, the trafficker, or pimp, tells the women that they are indebted to him or her.
“These individuals are recruited for this line of work and is very intentional,” Wells said, noting that they typically have low-income status and “minimal education, and they get recruited for what they think is legitimate work.”
To pay down their debt, the women are forced to perform illicit activities, which the men pay for with tips. When a John visits a massage parlor, he pays the house for a massage, and then tips the woman for the illicit service
“Most who run one (illicit parlor) run several,” Reveles said. “The vast majority of them are connected to this international criminal organization. So, it’s not this local crime; it’s part of a bigger picture.”
While the proposed ordinance aims to be an important first step in battling human trafficking in San Clemente, the next question, Wells said, is how to protect the women, who are believed to be victims forced into the illicit business, once that parlor has been shut down.
Historically speaking, Wells noted, law enforcement has gone after the sex workers.
However, over the years, local law enforcement, namely the OC Human Trafficking Task Force, has bucked the traditional approach of going after the sex workers, recognizing that the larger issue is organized crime and instead targeting the syndicates responsible.
“The big general approach is recognizing that the girls working there are victims of pimping,” said Reveles. “In decades past, the target was the workers, but it did little to impact or bring down the organization that was funding (the enterprise) . . . the new strategy is to focus on who is controlling and funding, not just a specific location but the organization as a whole.”
One of the obstacles in the approach, however, is working with the victims who oftentimes aren’t willing to talk with law enforcement—across the U.S., not just Orange County—for a few reasons. Language and cultural barriers can be an issue, as many of the women are foreign nationals.
After shutting down illicit massage parlors, Reveles, explained, the task force will bring in translators who can communicate with the victims. Advocacy groups are also employed by the task force to continue providing support and protection for the women.
But another key deterrent to prosecution, Reveles said, is that the victims are reluctant to talk, simply out of fear and implicit coercion by their captors. In turn, it makes it difficult to prove that they’re being pimped and, therefore, difficult to get convictions of the traffickers.
Expounding on that point, Wells said the victims are coached and instructed to protect the trafficker. They’re even taught that all law enforcement officers are corrupt or complicit, so they shouldn’t cooperate with the police unless they want to get arrested and deported.
There’s also the issue of the women being relocated periodically, making it difficult for law enforcement when building a case against a suspected organization, Reveles said. Being able to prove to a district attorney, without any reasonable doubt, that there’s human trafficking involved becomes an issue when the women don’t talk or can no longer be located after they have been moved.
“They move them around a lot,” Reveles said, adding: “Within weeks, they move them around, so now that victim is somewhere around California or the United State. So, that is a major hurdle.”
Such dilemmas, Reveles said, are contributing factors that help explain why undercover investigations take longer than most people would think, as the task force is targeting the head of the syndicates that operate vast networks of illicit massage businesses.
“It’s everywhere, it’s very intense and takes time-intensive investigations to really get (the organizations),” Reveles said. “There’s no city that escapes this.”
“We’re trying to get to the control of the money people, who fund them at the top of the organization, rather than just shutting one (parlor) down,” he said. “That does nothing to dismantle the organization . . . it’s the broader picture of shutting it down permanently.”
HITTING CLOSE TO HOME
At the start of an investigation, Reveles said, law enforcement will rely heavily on certain websites designed solely to let Johns know where they can get an erotic massage.
One website that’s largely used is Rub Maps.
There, paid users can leave reviews on any massage parlor, letting others know about their experience getting an erotic massage, how much they paid, which masseuse they had and what services were provided. The users can also rate the masseuse on their physical features.
Based on a review of the site, nine establishments in San Clemente were reviewed, but only two appeared to be actively engaged in illicit activity. The other seven were either listed as non-erotic or had been closed.
One of the two establishments had a review as recently as June, while the other parlor’s most recent review of illicit activity was from this past February.
“I basically just ask(ed) her outright, if she’s got a ‘happy’ finish for me, and she laughs, but she’s not dumb,” one user from October 2019 wrote, explaining in graphic detail the types of sexual acts that were performed.
“After getting into the room, I set myself and waited for (her) to come into the room,” another reviewer wrote this past February. “After a few moments, she came in and we got together; we agreed to the tip and what I wanted from the session . . . and she was OK with it.”
One common theme found in the reviews was that all the women described were noted to be of Asian descent, including Chinese and Vietnamese. Most of them were also described as being in their 30s and 40s—the prime targets traffickers and visa brokers look for, Wells said.
“What’s really typical with victims in the illicit massage industry is that a target person is a middle-aged, Asian woman,” she said.
Wells added that the Johns who visit these massage parlors are considered low-risk buyers who don’t want to engage on the street but would rather visit what they believe to be a legitimate business.
“(The Johns are) not looking at that person as a sexual date, so removing the sexuality connection also removes the emotional connection, so it’s purely transactional,” Wells said. “It’s merely a physical service.”
Most of the users on Rub Maps also wrote that they visited the parlors in the afternoon, with some writing that they went there in the morning or in the early evening.
While only two locations appeared active, reviews for the locations listed as non-erotic indicated that there may have been some history of illicit activity. Many of the reviewers had expressed disappointment in the establishment for no longer offering such services, stating it was a waste of time to revisit them.
ADDRESSING THE DEMAND
At the end of the day, Reveles said, the other facet of the human trafficking issue that’s barely being addressed is the demand. He said that there are some advocacy groups working to tackle the demand side of the equation, but there’s no large-scale effort being done.
“We do all of these investigations, we do all these things that can be done, but we leave the demand side,” he said. “The demand part is really addressing who it is.” In most cases, the customers are men, or Johns, but there can be some Janes.
Reveles said the issue in addressing the demand side is getting men to want to attend seminars and talks related to the topic of human trafficking and the negative impacts of patronizing illicit massage parlors.
Noting that most groups advocating against human trafficking are spearheaded by women, as well as religious institutions, Reveles said there have been male-led groups such as Men Standing Against Trafficking.
Combating human trafficking as a whole, Reveles also said, is going to be a slow process and will require a paradigm shift in attitudes toward the various efforts and approaches in addressing the issue.
“It’s such a slow process across the state and county that it’s going to take some time,” he said. “Like the view on drunk driving, the view on domestic violence, the view on rape of an acquaintance … I use those as analogies as a concept that this is slow-moving.”
For a list of resources and to learn more about human trafficking, visit i5freedomnetwork.org.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.