Friday, October 23, 2009

Indonesia hub for human trafficking gang bosses


They have suitably piratical names like Ali Cobra and Suparman Tong, but there is nothing swashbuckling about the lives these men lead.

All too often they bring death or years of slavery.

Cobra and Suparman are in prison in Indonesia. They were arrested in May when they organized the breakout from a detention centre of 18 Afghan asylum-seekers.

The refugees were put on a fishing boat bound for Australia, but the vessel capsized in stormy seas and nine of the refugees drowned.

Indonesia has become a hub of people-smuggling in recent years as regional wars, fear of ethnic cleansing or mere desire for economic opportunity drive thousands of people to seek supposed safety in countries like Canada and Australia.

Traffickers' fees can run to tens of thousands of dollars and all too often refugees who cannot pay, sign on for years of bonded labour akin to slavery at their destination to pay off the debt.

Indonesia is a favourite hub because it has no laws against human trafficking and only minor penalties for breaching the vague rules governing migration.

That's why Captain Bram -- real name Abraham Lauhenapessy -- was in a position to organize the boat, now tied up in the west Java port of Merak after capture by the Indonesian navy, for 250 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers who wanted to go to Australia.

There are suspicions that Captain Bram also organized the voyage of the Ocean Lady, which was detained off the B.C. coast last week with 76 would-be migrants, apparently Sri Lankan Tamils, on board.

Captain Bram is fresh out of prison after serving 20 months of the two-year sentence he was handed in 2007 for breaking Indonesia's migration laws.

He was found on the boat at Merak pretending to be a crew member and was arrested by Indonesian police. Indeed, one of the reasons the boat got captured was that he ordered it to turn around when it failed to make a sea rendezvous with another boat, and he feared being taken to Australia, where he would face 20 years in prison.

Indonesia is a much better bet for Captain Bram. He has been arrested there many times, but is seldom charged because of lack of evidence or because money is persuasive.

His time may be running out as intense cooperation in recent years between Australian and Indonesian police and intelligence agencies has unmasked much about the kingpins of human trafficking and their networks.

The volume of people trying to get to Australia has intensified since the election of the Labour Party government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in late 2007. The belief has bounced around Asia that the Rudd government is soft on illegal immigrants and refugees.

Already this year, 34 boats bringing asylum seekers have been identified by Australian authorities and 1,700 people detained awaiting judgment on their cases.

What is not known is how many hundreds of people drown when the unseaworthy -- and cheap -- craft favoured by the smugglers sink en route.

Most of the would-be migrants come from the war-torn countries of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Thousands run out of money and get stranded in Indonesia. In the west Java hill resort of Puncak, for example, there are now so many Afghans awaiting passage to Australia that local restaurants serve Afghan food.

Two Pakistanis, Ali Reza and Ali Sadat, are the big bosses of the trafficking of people from Afghanistan and Pakistan. These men usually travel with four bodyguards and are very dangerous. It was Reza who organized the January detention camp breakout for the Afghans for which Cobra and Suparman are doing time.

Reza hasn't been seen in Indonesia since February.

A fourth kingpin is Iranian Majid Mahmood, a regular star on the Indonesian police most-wanted list.

Most journeys to Australia begin with flights from Pakistan to Malaysia. Malaysia is a favourite transit point because, in a wonderfully useful piece of religious brotherly solidarity for the traffickers, it does not require visas for people coming from Muslim countries.

From there it is an easy hop to Indonesia or even directly by boat to Australia through the tortuous waterways of the Indonesian archipelago's 16,500 islands.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Search for Amber Dubois continues

In August, police thought they had found Amber Dubois, the 14-year-old Escondido girl missing since February.

For three weeks, they had been tracking a girl who had been seen near Garberville in Humboldt County.

“Somebody saw a flier and said, ‘Wow, I'm sure that's her,’ ” said Escondido police Lt. Bob Benton.

Escondido police contacted deputies in the county 700 miles away, and more fliers were distributed.

More tips came in. The girl looked like Amber, and she had told people that was her name. She had also told people she was from Escondido.

“We thought we had it solved,” Benton said.

But like so many leads and tips since Amber disappeared, the efforts were for naught.

Deputies found the girl, whose name really is Amber. And she had run away from her home in Escondido — Escondido Lakes, Wash. She was 17.

“Talk about your coincidences,” Benton said. “We thought for sure it was her. That's been the toughest part in the emotional roller coaster of getting what we believe are very credible tips and that Amber would be coming home, to the realization that it's not her.”

Escondido police, with the assistance at one time or another of dozens of law enforcement agencies — including the FBI — continue to search for Amber. They have been able to determine to some extent what didn't happen through a process of elimination, but what did happen remains a mystery.

Tips keep coming in about possible sightings. On Friday, Benton said, a tip prompted a search for Amber in South Carolina.

“Fresh eyes” in the department are reviewing thousands of pages of transcribed interviews and tips to make sure nothing has been overlooked.

“It's very frustrating from our standpoint that for the amount of time and resources we've thrown at this thing that we have yet to locate her or find out what happened to Amber,” Benton said.

Last seen Feb. 13
Amber was last seen at 7:10 a.m. Feb. 13 walking to Escondido High School on North Broadway. She was walking with a tall boy who has yet to be identified.

Two video recordings made from cameras at the school show that Amber did not keep walking toward the campus.

It's possible, though police think it unlikely, that she was abducted on the street. It's also possible she walked across the football field or turned around and headed north. The cameras would have recorded her if she had walked past the football field or near the main building.

By the next day, police were very concerned. They interviewed her family and friends.

“Essentially, we found out she is a normal 14-year-old,” Benton said. “She liked to read. She was somewhat of a loner, but it was very much out of character for her to be missing, and that's why we jumped on this case early on. We realized it was very suspicious. We've been working it full time ever since.”

On average, 550 missing-person reports come into Escondido police each year. Most concern teenagers, usually runaways found within a few days.

Nationally, it is estimated that more than 1 million children go missing for at least a short while each year. The vast majority are found within a day.

It has been more than eight months since Amber disappeared.

More than 500 interviews of friends, family, sex offenders and others have been conducted during the search.

More than 1,200 tips have come in. Many are useless, like suggestions that police check her cell phone records, which was done immediately. Some are far-fetched, like those from people claiming to be psychics who report such things as, “I see her standing by a white fence.”

A $100,000 reward for information has been offered.

Amber's cell phone went dead the morning she disappeared and was activated once, for only a few seconds, the next day.

“We don't know what significance that has,” Benton said.

Experts have dug into the computers Amber used, and even today some of the Internet activity isn't fully known because servers are located out of the country. Investigators say Amber didn't have any online activity that might suggest she was thinking of running away or that she was in contact with someone who might mean her harm.

A red pickup seen in a grainy video parked in the school bus lot near the football field has been all but dismissed as a lead.

“We think we've identified it,” Benton said. “We're hoping to confirm soon that the red truck had nothing to do with the case.”

Two months ago, police thought they had another strong lead.

They were getting tips about the sighting of a girl who looked just like Amber. She had been seen in the San Francisco area, as well as in parts of Central California and even Yosemite National Park.

Sam Rubin of Holtville said he picked up a girl and boy in Yosemite on July 29 or 30 who told him that they had been camping and that a bear had eaten their food.

On his way home, Rubin saw an Amber flier in a gas station in Lake Tahoe and was “99 percent” sure it was Amber he had picked up.

Police tracked the girl for weeks, and finally authorities found her in Clearlake, about 100 miles northwest of Sacramento.

She gave a false name, and Clearlake police sent Escondido her photograph. They, too, thought it was Amber.

It wasn't. It was a 15-year-old girl who looked remarkably similar and had run away from home in Antioch in the Bay Area three months earlier. She was returned to her mother.

Upcoming birthday
Amber will turn 15 on Sunday.

Her mother, Carrie McGonigle, and father, Maurice Dubois, have been doing all they can to keep Amber's case in the spotlight in the hope of generating more tips.

They've recently appeared on two nationally syndicated television shows and made headlines last month when they criticized the police for not doing enough. They have since met with police and have softened their criticism.

“There were some miscommunications,” Maurice Dubois said. “We were not told specifics about the case at the time. It's an open investigation, so we can't be told everything. We know that.”

The search and the waiting are difficult, he said.

“Yesterday was the eight-month anniversary of her disappearance. That was rough,” Dubois said Wednesday. “Planning a candlelight vigil for her 15th birthday, that's been rougher.”

The vigil will likely be at Lake Dixon in Escondido, but plans have not yet been completed.

Where do police go from here?

Benton said detectives will follow any new leads.

“If you're sitting at home reading this article and you think you have information that is significant — call,” said Lt. Craig Carter. “It's going to be that one piece of information that's going to push us over the edge. We'd like to have that one piece of information.”

Original Story from Union-Tribune

J. Harry Jones: (760) 737-7579;

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Voodoo trafficker faces conviction in New Jersey

By Joe Ryan/The Star-Ledger

NEWARK -- A federal prosecutor today urged jurors to convict a woman accused of smuggling West African girls to New Jersey and forcing them to work without pay in hair braiding salons, saying she preyed on her victims' hopes for a better life in America.

Akouavi Kpade Afolabi is accused of recruiting more than 20 girls from impoverished villages in Togo and Ghana and then using beatings and threats of voodoo curses to make them toil up to 14 hours a day at salons in Newark and East Orange.

"She knew these girls were young. They were poor. They were uneducated," said Shana W. Chen, an assistant U.S. Attorney, during her closing argument. "She knew they wanted a better life and they were susceptible to that promise."

Afolabi's lawyer, Olubukola O. Adetula, is scheduled to deliver his closing argument later today. He has argued during the four-week trial that the girls were, in fact, paid and has described Afolabi as a benevolent mother figure who treated the alleged victims like daughters.

Afolabi sat silently during the proceedings, her eyes downcast as she listened to a translator repeat the arguments in her native language, Ewe. She wore a black-and-white striped blouse; dark slacks concealed the shackles around her ankles.

Afolabi was arrested in 2007 along with her former husband and son. They have already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit forced labor. Both told a federal judge that Afolabi, who has been in custody since her arrest, was the group's ringleader.

Prosecutors say the group manipulated a visa program to slip up to 20 girls and women into the country, ranging in age from 10 to 19. If convicted of forced labor, Afolabi faces up to 20 years in prison.

Afolabi housed the alleged victims in houses in Newark and East Orange.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Moldovan pleads guilty in human trafficking case

By Bill Draper

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Moldovan, one of 12 people charged in a massive racketeering scheme, pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court to one count of forced labor trafficking, and agreed to cooperate with the government.

Alexandru Frumusache admitted in a plea bargain that he had aided and abetted an operation in which foreigners were provided with temporary work visas then fanned out to housekeeping jobs in 14 states.

Frumusache (pronounced froo-moo-SAHK-ee) admitted that he worked as a secretary for Giant Labor Solutions, a Kansas City-based labor-leasing company, and drove workers to various places, including Alabama, in violation of the work visas they had received.

He came to the U.S. on a temporary visa in November 2007 and worked in the Southeast, prosecutors said. He contacted Giant Labor Solutions in April 2008 seeking help in getting that visa extended, and in September 2008 moved to Kansas City and began working for GLS.

Eight Uzbekistan nationals and four other people were charged in May in the largest human trafficking case ever prosecuted in Kansas City. Frumusache's court-appointed attorney, Tony Miller of Kansas City, said the 24-year-old from Moldova was only a minor player in the ring and was in many ways no different from the victims of the trafficking scheme.

"Everybody wants to come to America," Miller told the Associated Press after the court proceedings. "When put in difficult situations, we might overlook how others are treated, even if we're in the same situation. And that's unfortunate."

Officials say the ring operated from 2001 until this spring, offering people primarily from the Philippines, Dominican Republic and Jamaica a better life working in the U.S.

The indictment says the victims paid thousands of dollars for the temporary visas, which limited where they could work and what types of jobs they could perform. But officials say workers were told after they arrived that if they didn't do what they were told, their visas would be revoked and they or their families could be forced to pay a fee of $5,000 to $10,000.

Prosecutors say Giant Labor used the workers to fill labor contracts in Missouri, Kansas, Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, South Carolina and Wyoming.

According to the indictment, workers in Kansas City were stuck in small, sparsely furnished apartments, had no access to their mail and were charged so many fees that they were sometimes told on payday they owed the company money. Prosecutors said the workers became trapped because they couldn't afford to leave.

Miller said Frumusache was victimized in the same way, forced to live in an overcrowded apartment and sleep on an air mattress, and that he was treated like a servant by the eight Uzbekistan nationals. He was paid $8 an hour with no overtime to drive workers to Alabama, Miller said.

As part of the plea agreement, Frumusache agreed to cooperate with the government in its prosecution of other defendants in the case. While he could face up to 20 years in prison without parole, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release, prosecutors indicated his cooperation might result in a shorter sentence.

During his guilty plea, Frumusache questioned the supervised release stipulation because he had understood he would be deported.

Neither prosecutors nor Miller would discuss how much prison time, if any, they expected Frumusache to receive because of his guilty plea.

Sentencing was set for Feb. 25.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

London's Metro Police trying to shut down anti-trafficking team

Proposals by the Metropolitan Police to disband its specialist human trafficking team have been attacked by several leading charities.

The charities, including the NSPCC and Amnesty International, say the move would be seriously detrimental to the fight against trafficking.

They have written to Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson appealing for the unit not to be disbanded.
The Met said the team, set up in 2007, had direct funding for three years.

A final decision on whether the move will go ahead is expected within weeks.

'Specialist knowledge'
The BBC's June Kelly says in the team's short history, it has already been threatened with closure once before, because of funding problems, and later given a reprieve.
Now once again there is a proposal to disband a team which has been described as an international example of good practice, our correspondent says.
If the trafficking team is disbanded, the proposal is for its work to be given to other Met officers.
The charities, which also include End Child Prostitution and Trafficking and the Poppy Project, which helps victims of trafficking, have banded together to protest.

They stress that with victims traded for different reasons - including sex, forced labour, and domestic servitude - specialist policing is needed.

In their letter, they say: "Human trafficking is a complex, sensitive issue.
"Given the continually evolving nature of the crime, it has taken the Human Trafficking Team and Non-Governmental Organisations working in the field a number of years to develop their expertise in the area.

"Policing trafficking for forced labour, domestic servitude and all other forms of exploitation requires specialist knowledge and understanding of trafficking, dedicated resources and commitment."

'Financial pressures'
The charities also warn that when London plays host to the 2012 Olympics it could become even more of a magnet for the traffickers because experience shows that where large number of people gather there is an increased demand for sexual services.
A Met Police spokesman said it had been conducting a review about its response to "all organised immigration crime and trafficking".

"This has yet to be ratified but proposes clubs and vice [team] have enhanced resources and take over trafficking for sexual exploitation investigations."

Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, said getting rid of the team, "even if there are serious financial pressures", was "very dangerous".

"Clubs and vice have experience of trafficking for sexual exploitation but their remit does not cover trafficking for forced labour or domestic servitude," he said.

On the funding issue, the Home Office said there was a "clear understanding" with the Met "that any future funding as of 1 April 2010 would be met from its central budget".

A spokeswoman added that the Home Office provides funding to the Serious Organised Crime agency, which investigates human trafficking, and the UK Human Trafficking Centre, a police-led multi-agency centre which co-ordinates intelligence and operations.

London is often the first stop in the UK for victims. Human trafficking has been described as the third largest international crime, following illegal drugs and arms trafficking.

The nature of the crime means that the cases which are detected are the tip of the iceberg, according to one senior Met officer.

Giving evidence to the Home Affairs select committee in 2008, Commander Alan Gibson said: "I would not like to say how much of its is above water."

Commander Gibson said that in the previous two years the Met had dealt with 211 cases.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Seattle charges first person with human trafficking

Posted by Jennifer Sullivan

DeShawn Clark, 19, the remaining member of a West Seattle street gang to be tried for his alleged role in a prostitution ring, will appear in court this afternoon for opening statements in his trial.

Of the six men arrested after a Seattle police sting operation last year, Clark is the only one who has not pleaded guilty. Five of the six men arrested after a 19-year-old prostitute directed police to them belonged to a street gang called the West Side Street Mobb, according to police and prosecutors.

Clark, prosecutors say, committed the most egregious crimes. Clark is the first -- and only -- person to be charged in King County Superior Court with human trafficking, a new law created in 2003.

"A very high standard has to be met. You have to show voluntary servitude or forced labor," said Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff for King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. "To show those things in a prostitution case can be difficult because you are reliant on the cooperation of a potential victim who has suffered severe abuse."

In addition to second-degree human trafficking, Clark is charged with first-degree promoting prostitution, two counts of promoting commercial sexual abuse of a minor, second-degree assault, unlawful imprisonment and drug possession.

If convicted, he faces more than 26 years in prison, Goodhew said.

Relatives of two of the men who pleaded guilty deny their relatives' involvement and say the West Side Street Mobb is a neighborhood "clique" and not a gang. Relatives say that their loved ones took plea agreements to avoid potentially harsher penalties had they been found guilty at trial. Among the men to plead guilty is Clark's brother, Shawn.

Original Story by The Seattle Times

Monday, October 5, 2009

Teens become prey in Charlotte sex trade

By Franco OrdoƱez
Posted: Sunday, Oct. 04, 2009

In his east Charlotte apartment less than a mile from Windsor Park Elementary, Jorge Flores Rojas created a religious shrine to a mystical figure known as the patron saint of death, who is said to protect pimps and other criminals.

Each day, Flores prayed to Santa Muerte, or "Saint Death," joined by the teenage girls whom he forced to have sex with as many as 20 men a day.

Flores, 45, was a notorious operator in a city that has become a center for sex trafficking along the East Coast.

Local and federal authorities are not sure how extensive the Charlotte sex rings have become. They say Flores' ring brought in hundreds of young women each year to work as prostitutes.

Flores was convicted of trafficking in April. But authorities say other pimps in Charlotte continue to prey on young girls from poor countries.

"I don't think we really realized how big this was," says Delbert Richburg, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Office of Investigations in Charlotte. "We're probably just scratching the surface."

The growth is so extensive that this month ICE stationed a team of agents in Charlotte to focus on human trafficking, smuggling and exploitation. Across the Carolinas, immigrant sex rings have been broken up in Monroe, Durham and Columbia.

Jennifer Stuart, a staff attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, says her office has seen a "sharp increase" in trafficking case referrals the last few months.

Federal agents say Flores, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, picked up vans full of eight to 10 young women each week outside the McDonald's on West Sugar Creek Road near Interstate 85, where other traffickers had brought them. Others, he smuggled in directly from Latin America.

Two pairs of children's sneakers, pink and green, now sit outside Flores' old apartment off Sharon Amity Road near Eastland Mall. It was one of two apartments where, just a year ago, he hid his teenage victims.

Authorities say he brought customers there, but mostly took the girls to hotels and brothels set up around the city.

He favored teenagers because he could charge more. Clients paid $25 to $30 for 15 minutes with one of the girls. One teenage victim testified in court that, on many occasions, Flores would drive her to a house or an apartment where men would be waiting.

An undercover agent says the teenagers would be made to have sex with up to 100 men a week.

"I have daughters," he says. "... Every time I think of that number, it's something I can't fathom."

Trading in New York, D.C.

To keep a fresh cycle of women in Charlotte, Flores traded with traffickers, including relatives, in Washington, D.C., and New York.

In November 2007, court documents say, he "sold" at least two teenagers from Mexico to Yaneth Martinez, a D.C. madam, who advertised her services with cards offering "Hair Cuts for Men Only."

Martinez worked the girls in the capital city and gave Flores a cut of the profits. A month later, she returned them to him.

Their business relationship worked like this for more than a year, federal authorities said. Then, Flores took a liking to Martinez's teenage daughter.

He asked her if she'd work with him. She refused. Flores didn't give up.

He later called the girl's cell phone and asked her to meet him. He threatened to hurt her mother if she didn't.

She agreed to meet him. She hoped he only wanted to talk, but Flores threw her in his car, authorities said.

"'Sit there, don't say anything. Don't even try to look where we're going,'" agents said he told her.

Martinez tipped off a women's center in Washington that her daughter had been kidnapped. The center contacted authorities.

On Feb. 7, 2008, ICE agents stormed Flores' apartment in Charlotte. He wasn't there, but authorities arrested him a day later in Myrtle Beach. He had brought some of his victims to South Carolina because they had become "overused" in Charlotte, according to court records.

Martinez's daughter spent about three weeks as Flores' captive. Authorities say he raped her repeatedly. He forced her to have sex with dozens of men.

He stuffed her underwear in a small glass vase on his shrine. They prayed together to Santa Muerte.

If you run away, the saint will punish you, he told her.

Charlotte is particularly vulnerable to human trafficking. It's the largest city between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., at the junction of two interstate highways.

In addition, the size of the city's illegal immigrant community allows pimps like Flores to conceal their activities.

As with past waves of immigrants, many of the Latinos are men who left their families to find work. Many victims were lured here with promises of other jobs.

The women are often in the country illegally and dependent on their captors for food and shelter. They're easy to coerce.

"You don't have to have chains or bars to keep somebody under control," said John Price, a special agent with the FBI in Charlotte. "You can do it psychologically and emotionally, and that's typically what traffickers will use. It's a lot cheaper. It's a lot easier to threaten somebody. To beat them up."

Thousands of victims

The FBI estimates that some 18,000 people are trafficked into the United States for sex or forced labor. About a fourth end up in the Southeast; thousands come to the Carolinas.

Most victims of the sex rings are from Latin America, others from Asia and Eastern Europe.

One girl forced into prostitution thought she was coming to North Carolina to be a nanny, says Stuart of Legal Aid, which gives free legal services to low-income people.

Another 14-year-old from Mexico, who thought she was to work at a restaurant, was forced to have sex with men in Greenville, S.C., Columbia and Charlotte.

Martinez's daughter is like any other teenager, said her attorney Christopher Nugent of Washington. She enjoys her iPod and loves to shop. She often draws the dresses she'd like to wear.

In court, she asked if she could answer questions without looking at Flores.

His Charlotte attorney, Lucky Osho, said his client admits arranging women to have sex with men. But he said no one was kidnapped or forced to have sex against her will. Osho said Martinez's daughter was working for Flores in return for some of his women working for Martinez.

"It was part of the business," Osho told the Observer. "It was an exchange."

Flores told authorities that Martinez ran the sex ring.

Martinez's attorney, Lane Williamson, said his client did help Flores' girls find work, but that she did not coerce them. Williamson said Martinez was herself a victim, forced into prostitution earlier in life.

"This is something she was in, from her standpoint, as a matter of necessity," Williamson said. "The (women) were free to go and they did go on their own volition. That was not the case with Flores."

ICE is bringing in more agents and another supervisor to work on its new trafficking team. Victims will not be targeted for arrest or deportation, Special Agent Richburg said. Instead they will be offered special visas in exchange for their help prosecuting traffickers.

In April, Flores pleaded guilty to sex trafficking involving a minor and was sentenced to 24 years, after which he will be deported. He is currently in a federal prison in South Carolina. In July, Martinez pleaded guilty to transporting individuals for prostitution and was sentenced to time served. She will be deported to Honduras.

Martinez's daughter is doing much better, Nugent said. She's living with a foster family. She is getting a special green card for abused or abandoned children.

She wants to go to college and be a lawyer.

Two other girls found with Flores at the time of his arrest were also placed with foster families through a Charlotte women's center, authorities said.

The center arranged medical care and new clothes. ICE agents arranged work permits.

Before the permits arrived, the girls disappeared.