Organized crime groups with ties to the Far East are making major inroads into the prostitution business in Los Angeles and other cities by importing thousands of women from South Korea and Taiwan and shuttling them through a network of American brothels, according to federal and local law enforcement agencies.
Investigation of such prostitution activity, still in the early stages, already has led to a number of arrests across the nation as well as federal indictments and convictions in San Francisco and New York.
Immigration and military authorities also are investigating the possible involvement of American servicemen abroad who may have received up to $10,000 each to agree to sham marriages that enable Asian women to enter the United States. In exchange for such entry, the women typically agree to "indentured servitude" as prostitutes for as long as six months, federal authorities said.
Signs of Slavery
"People say this is a victimless crime," said Mary House, a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles who has prosecuted Asian massage parlors for prostitution. "But when I hear about women working as prostitutes to pay off some kind of debt, or I see them in nightgowns living in a small room in back of some sleazy massage parlor . . . well, I disagree. If we allow that kind of thing we haven't gone very far to stop slavery."
The new wave of prostitution, authorities say, is an indication of the increasing influence of Asian-based organized crime in the United States.
"This is the first time we've been able to show an organized structure regarding Asian prostitution; in the past it was only independent forays," said Inspector John McKenna, head of the San Francisco Police Department's gang task force.
Last month, two women were convicted in New York of importing more than 50 Taiwanese women to work as indentured servants in New York, San Francisco and Denver brothels. One of the women told an undercover officer that some of the visas were obtained by bribing a U.S. Consulate official in Taiwan, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Carl Loewenson. The charges are being investigated, he said.
More recently, two San Francisco men pleaded guilty to four counts involving conspiracy to bring prostitutes from Taiwan to the United States. Two powerful Asian gangs based in American cities--the United Bamboo and Wah Ching--may be involved in the Taiwanese ring, federal authorities believe.
The first indication of a Taiwanese-linked prostitution ring here was uncovered by Monterey Park police after they raided an Alhambra brothel in May, 1985, and arrested three women, who were later convicted of prostitution. One of the prostitutes gave investigators a full statement.
Detectives passed along the information to Los Angeles police, who in turn informed Bay Area authorities because one of the operators of the brothel was believed to be a member of the San Francisco-based Wah Ching gang.
Two months later, San Francisco police raided two similar operations in the Bay Area. Further investigation and follow-up raids four months ago in San Francisco, New York, New Jersey and Denver-area brothels led to the federal indictment of three San Francisco men--and to telephone records that suggested links to brothels in other cities.
"We began to see a pattern developing," McKenna said. "Names of people involved in this began surfacing in other areas of the country."
Fewer details are known about the South Korean crime syndicate that is believed to be operating brothels in the United States, but Los Angeles police say its presence is growing.
Federal authorities first began investigating South Korean prostitution after five "health spas" in Farmington Hills, Mich., an affluent Detroit suburb, were raided last October.
A subsequent statewide investigation--involving the Michigan State Police, the FBI in Detroit, the Internal Revenue Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service--revealed that the "spas" were part of a "nationwide organization" involving thousands of women, said Farmington Hills Police Chief William Dwyer.
Telephone records seized at the five "spas," he said, "identified similar operations in cities throughout the country," including Los Angeles.
In recent years, South Koreans have taken over the massage parlor business in Los Angeles, and today they own and operate 22 of the city's 25 massage parlors, according to LAPD Vice Detective Bill Margolis.
Some Leave the City
Crackdowns during the past few years in the city have forced many other massage parlors to move to other areas of the county, he said.
There are now more than 150 Korean-owned massage parlors in Southern California--more than double the number five years ago, another law enforcement source estimated. Most are suspected of having ties to a national South Korean crime syndicate and of being fronts for prostitution, the source said.