Monday, Sept. 25, 2000 | 11:12 a.m.
Despite its Sin City reputation Las Vegas is not known as a hotbed for Asian prostitution rings.
That distinction traditionally has belonged to gateway metropolitan cities such as New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
But academicians and law enforcement officials said they were not surprised that an alleged nationwide prostitution ring involving smuggled Asian women found its way to an apartment complex in the 4000 block of West Twain Avenue.
Asian organized crime expert Ko-Lin Chin, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said increases in Asian tourism and migration to the United States over the past 10 years have caused the spread of Asian prostitution to cities not previously known for that activity.
"As early as six or seven years ago Atlantic City had no Asian brothels, but they have had quite a few in the last three or four years," Chin said. "They cater mainly to Asian males. Most of these customers are married, but their wives are still in Asia so there is a strong demand for the services of Asian women here."
The FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service, aided by Metro Police, earlier this month arrested five Las Vegans as part of "Operation Jade Blade." The indictment alleged that they participated in a network of brothels involving Asian women who were smuggled into this country for a fee. The women were then forced into prostitution to repay their debts.
Metro vice Lt. Terry Davis said that was the first time he could recall that an illegal Asian-based brothel was discovered in Las Vegas.
"It's a new thing for Las Vegas," Davis said. "It's always in the back of your mind that as soon as one (illegal) lucrative business closes down another pops up to take its place. This is a major tourist destination, and there is a large amount of money that runs in and out of the city."
A federal prosecutor, in fact, has alleged that a Hong Kong travel company was tied to the brothel network.
"Las Vegas is being seen now as an emerging Asian cultural center in terms of tourism," said UNLV anthropology professor William Jankowiak. "It looks like these brothels were for the middle class, not the whales."
More than 33 million tourists flock to Las Vegas annually, including an increasing number of Asians. Last year's tourists included 478,000 from Japan, 85,000 from Taiwan, 75,000 from South Korea, 38,000 from Hong Kong and 18,000 from Singapore.
Nevada's Asian population also has grown by 123.7 percent over the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Asian prostitution in the United States dates back at least to the late 19th century, when women were brought here to service Chinese laborers who built the nation's first railroads. The sex slave trade in Asia itself goes back centuries.
In a 1991 series on Asian sex slaves, the Chicago Tribune reported that at least 1 million women and children were sold or auctioned into slavery each year on that continent. Jankowiak said that with increased industrialization of China and other Asian nations in recent years, women and children have been forced to move from rural to urban areas.
"Prostitution is in every city and small town in China today," Jankowiak said. "China has a surplus of labor that its economy cannot support so women are moving into prostitution."
Many of those women are so desperate for employment they buy their way into the United States. Bill Yeomans, chief of staff of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 foreign women are smuggled into this country annually. A "significant number" come from Asia and are used as domestic servants or migrant labor as well as prostitutes, he said.
"We recognize that the problem of trafficking in women, and not just from Asia, is a growing problem," Yeomans said. "We have taken steps to coordinate federal law enforcement to crack down on it."
Federal authorities concede that once a person enters the United States illegally, it is fairly easy for them to move around. But smuggled Asian women are routinely told that harm will come to their families back home if they do not make enough money through prostitution to pay off their debts.
Yeomans said the Justice Department has been urging Congress to make it easier to prosecute individuals for smuggling women.
"Right now we have to prove that they're being held by force or under a threat of physical harm," he said.
Law enforcement agencies have made some inroads. Mai Le Ho, a lecturer on Asian-American and women's studies at San Jose State University in California, said police have cracked down on Asian massage parlors in the San Francisco Bay Area that served as fronts for prostitution. But she said the offenders either open up a new business under a different name or move out of town.
"The people who run these kinds of things have a history of illegal businesses," she said. "It is very profitable, and they have international connections."
The latest Bay Area trend has been the emergence of Vietnamese coffee houses where customers, normally males from Southeast Asia, are served by scantily clad Asian women who double as prostitutes, Ho said.
"They look nice on the outside, but they have tinted glass so you can't see the inside," she said.
While some prostitution rings in this country have been tied to Asian organized crime, Chin said most Asian brothels in the United States are operated by internationally connected independent businessmen, some of whom employ street gangs for protection.
"It's relatively easy to operate one," Chin said. "Four or five people can come together and decide to open such an operation. Organized crime groups are more likely to be involved in gambling and extortion."
Aside from word of mouth, tourists can discover the whereabouts of illegal brothels in some Asian-language newspapers, Chin said.
"They will advertise as massage parlors, but some of the prostitution houses are called health clinics," he said.
Some brothels have been exposed by suspicious neighbors who notice the large volumes of customer traffic.
But law enforcement officers often have problems busting Asian brothels because the operators often recognize local Asian-American police, who would be used to work undercover. That is why law enforcement agencies have been known to bring in officers from other communities to infiltrate the operation.
"Cracking down on Asian prostitution has always been a major problem for law enforcement authorities because the operators tend to maintain a low profile," Chin said.