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Robert Kraft, massage parlor trafficking, and national efforts to end it

by Rochelle Keyhan | Collective Liberty
Thursday, 28 February 2019 16:08 GMT

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft arrives before Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The women, all from China, were fraudulently recruited and coerced into servicing up to 1,500 men a year without access to the profit their enslavement was raising for their traffickers

Rochelle Keyhan is CEO of Collective Liberty (national anti-trafficking NGO equipping systems to disrupt human trafficking), the 2018 Thomson Reuters Foundation Stop Slavery Hero, former Director of Disruption Strategies at Polaris (national anti-trafficking NGO educating the public and anti-trafficking stakeholders on nuances in human trafficking), and a former prosecutor of gender-based violence crimes and human trafficking in Philadelphia.   

Robert Kraft is among over 165 buyers, aged 19-84, with pending arrest warrants for purchasing sex from trafficked women on at least two occasions over the last 6 months. John Childs, a billionaire equity firm owner also from Massachusetts, and former president and CEO of CitiGroup Johns Havens, are also facing charges.

Vero Beach and Martin County Florida officials unveiled transcontinental human trafficking operations this past week, netting over 200 suspects, including Kraft, Haven, and Childs. “The tentacles of this go from here to New York to China, in Florida from here to Orange County.” Between $2 and $3 million in assets were seized via a complex money-laundering operation across the various organized criminal trafficking actors. Women were moved from spa to spa within the trafficking network, their movement controlled by their traffickers. The women, all from China, were fraudulently recruited and coerced into servicing up to 1,500 men a year without access to the profit their enslavement was raising for their traffickers. Martin County Sheriff William Snyder described that “It was clear that multiple women were working and living inside the spas. They were cooking on the back steps of the business. They were sleeping in the massage parlor on the massage tables.”

Demand Abolition, a national organization focused on shifting consequences of vice operation stings away from the women providing the services and toward the men soliciting them, conducted a national study of thousands of sex buyers in the United States. That study revealed that men sought their sexual services from venues least likely to lead to criminal or civil consequences, or public exposure. Despite these strong deterrent factors, described by the buyers themselves, this approach is seldom taken. Consequences are the only thing that will deter powerful men from perpetuating the demand for human trafficking. Robert Kraft made a $100,000 donation to an anti-trafficking organization in Massachusetts in 2015, and was honored for that philanthropy by ESPN in 2016 with the Stuart Scott Enspire Award at its Sports Humanitarian of the Year Awards for his charity.

Eclipsed by the high profile coverage of the South Florida illicit massage parlor arrests the same week is a similar large-scale, international in scope operation out of Dallas, TX that resulted in the recovery of over $6 million laundered through casinos and other businesses within the criminal trafficking network, which is a common way these trafficking networks evade detection. Dallas has focused on buyers in the past, but this week’s operation involved suing owners of the buildings, implementing a proven practice that has led to swift and enduring removal of Illicit Massage Practicing from cities in the Bay Area, CA, to Houston, TX, and now Florida. This form of organized criminal approach has been a consistent focus across Texas, with a special focus on empowering the victims through the pioneering efforts at the McLennan County Sheriff's office, which has eliminated massage parlor trafficking from their county.

This form of investigating human trafficking, emphasizing victim support and culturally sensitive investigative practices while focusing the investigation on the exploiters, like traffickers and buyers, is the new wave of best practices spreading across the United States. Obvious benefits to this shift in approach away from arresting the victims and toward supporting them, are that victims of human trafficking, who are recruited from other nations with very different cultures, languages, and systems, are being supported by our criminal justice system, while the perpetrators are being held accountable. Another benefit is in showing buyers, who create the demand for the sex trafficking market, are finally put in the position to fear consequences.

The investigations and arrests announced in Texas and Florida this past week go beyond supporting victims, to shifting the public consciousness that there are in fact criminal and public exposure consequences to purchasing trafficked women’s bodies. The arrest warrant for this behavior regardless of their social status, including commercial landlords and building owners, and an incredibly powerful figure like Robert Kraft, sends a strong message that we and our systems value the lives and well-being of trafficked people, and will not tolerate the behaviors that lead to their exploitation, that even high-powered men will suffer consequences for their part in empowering human trafficking.