Opinion

Opinion | William Snyder

Hold buyers accountable in sex trafficking

Globe staff

The usual tactic for law enforcement officers when we detect signs of illegal brothel activity is to go in with a couple of undercover agents, arrest the women, shut down the operation, and move on.

But when a health department inspector noticed suspicious activity in a massage parlor last July in Martin County, Fla., we sensed a chance to go beyond a storefront bust and find out who else was involved upstream.

The resulting eight-month investigation took us on an eye-opening journey into the ugly world of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. With court-ordered video surveillance in place, we found that the women selling sex acts in these strip mall brothels were virtual slaves: They rarely left the premises; they serviced an average of eight men a day, without protection; they slept on the massage table and cooked on hot plates; they were moved every few weeks to another branch in this network. We tracked $20 million in money flowing back toward China from this spiderweb of spas across southern Florida.

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Yet for me as county sheriff, the starkest revelation during this journey was how the local men in our community — some rich, some ordinary, many of them respected family men — were the drivers of this abusive business.

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The average cop — and that includes me — has no idea what human trafficking really looks like. It’s an amorphous world that defies stereotypes. We discovered that some of the women are employed as managers as well as providers of sex services — so they are both victims and victimizers. There was a huge learning curve as we discovered the complexities of what we were confronting.

Some people have asked why the women didn’t just run away. To where? Speaking no English, their families back home threatened, where could they run? They may not have had visible bonds, but they were held captive with unseen chains of fear, coercion, fraud, and debt — the definition of human trafficking.

Some news accounts have inaccurately called this a sting operation. That term usually refers to an operation set up to ensnare suspects in the process of committing criminal acts. In this case, we simply detected what was already ongoing criminal activity, and we then used court-authorized surveillance to pursue it and build the case. We stopped some of the men to record their identities after they left the massage parlors.

Their photos are now splashed on the evening news, with all the implications that holds for everyone who is touched by this destructive world.

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I hope that one result will be to scare off some potential buyers. Any man thinking of doing this should now imagine that a police surveillance camera is recording him and that video will probably become public record. Yes, it’s true that we were able to identify only about one of 5 men we believe used these services during our operation. But those are not odds to be accepted lightly by anyone who values his reputation.

This is not to say that we’ve solved this crisis. It’s evident this involved a complex international criminal organization, and we need federal support to track it fully and trace it back to its roots in China. We have been pleased with the willingness of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to join us on the case. And we are eager to work with other law enforcement departments at local and state level that have told us they also want to shift their focus to buyers and reduce the demand for prostitution. As long as there’s demand, there’s money to be made by traffickers. So traffickers use threats, coercion, and force to create a supply. Because no one would willingly choose the life these sex slaves live.

Some agencies and departments already have moved in this direction. The role model is Chicago, where Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart has become known for leading the Johns Suppression Initiative. This now-national campaign has led to the arrest of more than 9,000 men for buying sex. We know from new research that risk of arrest is a primary deterrent for men looking to buy sex, but only 6 percent of buyers have ever been arrested.

Of course, the most important part of our own journey was the one that led us through the streets of our own Martin County, where men were willing to buy the trafficked women’s coerced sexual services, almost in plain sight, right here at home. The men in our own communities created the demand.

The challenge now is to hold the buyers accountable. If these men were not buying, there would be no incentive for the human traffickers to channel women into these massage brothels in the first place. And these women, whether from China or from our own neighborhoods, wouldn’t be tricked and trapped into these devastating operations. The burden is on us to set these women free.

William Snyder is sheriff of Martin County, Fla.