The Day I Met Real Sex Traffickers, maybe the Top Dogs


April 11, 2017 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Society


human trafficking Bangkok

As researchers struggle to understand an issue that holds their interest few opportunities arise to meet and interact with the really bad guys, the top dogs of international crime. I had such an opportunity recently and, frankly, they were not such bad guys after all. Of course Internet media and governmental demonization proceeded them. The definition of traffickers is designed to include them even should they turn out to be beloved major donators to charities in their specific communities – and they were not that. But there is clearly a far more complex picture worth considering. Here is my story.

I am not a guy who hangs around bars and makes a lot of guy friends. Frankly I like women. And, like anyone else, I need some social contact, big or small, to help me fight off the normal loneliness that comes over us all when we are to detached from society. I talk to prostitutes.

I am polite enough to call them sex workers since prostitute has become an overused pejorative. Sometimes I will have a beer in a bar and buy a woman a drink too. We can talk in a bar because that is part of their job. Mostly I just meet women on the street, especially if they give me a smile indicating their interest in me. And, if so, I might invite her to a modest dinner where we can get off the street in a more quasi-friendly way. Some these women I know well enough to call a confidant. In exchange for some drinks, a few meals, and real concern for their wellbeing I learn a lot from these women. Frankly I think I know a lot more about sex work than most people who come into that field of research filled with good intentions but filled with baloney they’ve learned from our Internet media and ideologically founded academic study.

Now that I am a student of demography at a major Asian university I have earned the right to refer to my friendships as “field research”. And why not? I have read several articles where the “researcher” lived in an interesting neighborhood or country for a few months or maybe for years. When it is time to explain what he or she has learned in that unique environment, the researcher suddenly realizes he/she has been doing “field research”. And so am I doing my field research most evening that I take a walk in my neighborhood. In my case I am in the middle of some intense field research in Bangkok Thailand and specifically in what I call the Nana-Cowboy Corridor. Nana Plaza is self-described as the World’s Largest Adult Entertainment Centre. An easy walk away is Soi Cowboy, also a major adult entertainment center of similar size. Between the two are several other venues for sex work and many street sex workers especially after normal stories close for the night. That’s my neighborhood.

This is the story of the day I met the trafficking kingpins, March 21, 2017. Before I get to that I will set the stage for those who are still learning. Leading up to this I can say I have met several sex workers who have been trafficked. Trafficking is a word that has been defined exclusively by media regardless of any official UN definitions. Smuggling is often a better word but trafficking, as a word, has pushed the word smuggling off the page. Everything is described as trafficking these days when smuggling might be a better, more honest word to explain what has happened. Of course, again thanks to our modern media, traffickers are also defined by their media presence as being horrible brutes who kidnap innocent women – always implied as very young women – beat them, deceive them, “season” them, drug them, and later just kill them if they don’t follow orders. The presentation of traffickers within our modern media defines them as horrible brutish people. That’s a given. It is common knowledge. No one needs to offer any nuance because we all know what a trafficker is. And I am not here to challenge that. They are horrible people. That is so ingrained in our culture by now that I make no claim of having an ability to moderate that in any way. There is no nuance. Traffickers are horrible people. But maybe we need a better word.

Did I mention that I meet sex workers as I take my walks in my neighborhood? I met Alice (all names used here are changed) who was trafficked to Bahrain. She stayed about two years. And during that time I stayed in touch with her on a monthly basis by email. I was so curious about her experience that I flew to Bahrain and visited for a few days.

Then there was Betty who took a trip in a large van with several other women. They drove from Pattaya to Kuala Lumpur with the people who organized their tour, known here as the traffickers. She told me all about it.

And there was Carol who went to Singapore. Thai people can stay there for two weeks without a visa. In the first week Carol paid off all her expenses and the second week’s earnings were all profit. Carol learned how to do this on her first trip with a trafficker and after that she made the trip herself. Carol took that trip several times. And, of course, as one of my confidants, she told me all about it.

These women had a common thread that a good field researcher notices. They all were, by definition, trafficked but none of them would call themselves a victim. I made sure they understood what I was asking and confirmed several times that I wanted to know how they were treated and how they reacted to it. In every case cited above these women, first, agreed that they had hoped to make more money. Second, there was universal agreement that the expenses – both paid to the trafficker and other expenses of their own – were higher than they expected. They agreed they were over sold on the opportunity. But they also seemed to know that when you buy any product with a sales pitch, the advantages of the product, in this case a trip to do sex work, can be oversold. No one felt deceived – oversold but not decieved. No one was forced or deceived into being a sex worker either. The exciting stories on television and movies about women forced or deceived of course happen – somewhere, sometime – but I have no idea where or when that happens. Even woman I have met who either did go somewhere or where pitched on the idea of going somewhere to do sex work where already sex workers. Repeat, they were already sex workers. They were approached on the job. Of course my sample is biased by my means of meeting these women.

Let’s think for a moment about the nature of the risk a trafficker takes if he/she wants to recruit some sex workers to go somewhere: first, the trafficker can commit very serious crimes of kidnapping and then somehow force an unwilling woman to act like she is enjoying sex with strangers. Or the second choice is that our trafficker can ask women already doing that work with some degree of success to do the same work, with the trafficker’s help, in a place where she will be paid a lot more doing what she is already doing anyway. Alice was being paid about $35 per short time sex act in Bangkok. In Bahrain she got over $200 for the same sex act. There is a chance she had a big smile on her face some of the time just by thinking about that money. It is not unlike a 600% pay raise. Carol also was paid about $35 for a sex act on the street in Bangkok and rarely more than twice a day. And there were many days she had no customer. But in Singapore she brought home about $1,000 she saved in the second week because she was paid more. Women from all over the world travel from places where the price paid to them for sex is low to places where the price to them for sex is higher. Is anyone surprised to hear that? This is a classic pull factor of classic migration theory.

This is why every United States Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) tells countries all over the world that they must find more victims of trafficking and arrest more of those horrible traffickers. The USA, and other countries at the direction of the USA, offer more and more incentives to women who have been trafficked so they will agree to testify as victims. A few paragraphs back I explained that none of the women I met ever told me they were victims. They were disappointed that they didn’t make more money but they were not mistreated. Management in a quasi-legal or illegal business often need to have tight, strict management styles, I grant you. Plus if these women had been caught by police or exposed by “rescue NGOs” they might agree to the claim that they are victims because they would be coached by NGOs to get those benefits available to victims. The benefits are in effect a bribe to get women who don’t want to feel like they have been victimized to agree to be an official victim. This helps an entire industry of good hearted people who oppose sex work to validate their mission regardless of the true feelings of the women themselves. The alternative to agreeing to be a victim is to be treated as a criminal. That distinction can be very clear when a young woman sitting in a jail stares into her future.

So, the stage is set for the story of Dolly and my meeting with her traffickers. Dolly is my only example of a confidant who has trafficked, not from Bangkok to another country, but to Bangkok in this case from Africa. Dolly is from Uganda. I once met another African woman from Tanzania working as a sex worker in Bangkok, but we only had a couple of conversations on the street and I didn’t learn anything specific. You may have noticed a pattern to my names. Let’s call this other young African sex worker Edith.

Dolly was different. We had dinner at least twice. She has happy to hang out with me and opened up about her life leading up to coming to Thailand. She had never left Uganda before. I have never been to Uganda but I have been in Nairobi, Kenya and Antananarivo, Madagascar and smaller towns in both Kenya and Madagascar. Bangkok is a city of over eight million people with sky scrapers, subways, lights and traffic that must surely be breathe taking for people from Uganda or Tanzania.

Dolly had an undergraduate degree in administration of social work from a university in Uganda. This is not common among Thai sex workers and maybe even more unlikely among African sex workers. Plus, Dolly has a good heart as is often the way a nice person is described here in Thailand. I liked Dolly. I think I had Daddy issues in reverse. I would have been happy to throw my arm around her and help her in a way I might help my own daughter. Dolly had a degree in a subject area related to sociology. I am studying demography and that is a branch of sociology too. The school took me. They encouraged me to ask for a scholarship and I got it. Maybe there would be a place there for Dolly too.

I took her to see the school, Chulalongkorn University, and introduced her to several teachers and staff. Although it may have been obvious to some that she is a sex worker, she was well received. There was no hostility or evidence of stigma. We took a ride around the school too. A few days later Dolly and I sat at my desk and filled out the on-line application form. I promised to pay her first semester tuition and give her my extra computer. I was looking forward to seeing if she would be accepted and would grow and prosper with this opportunity. I had day dreams of attending her graduation. I have good memories of my own daughter’s graduation from university. Dolly responded by saying she knew this was a dream opportunity for her. After filling in the application and downloading her transcript of class work in Uganda, the only remaining step was to get a good digital photo to add to the application form. She said that she had to take a visa run to Malaysia the next day and would try to get a passport-style photo there. That is the last time I saw Dolly as I will soon explain.

As a student of demography I was fascinated to hear Dolly was the youngest of 18 children by her father’s three wives, sequential wives, not all at the same time. Her father was well respected with a small business in her community. Regarding Dolly’s sexual experience, she said she had one longtime boyfriend going back too high school days, but in her mid-twenties he broke off with her and married another woman. She claimed her sexual experience was limited to this one man before coming to Bangkok. She was also clear that she knew she would do sex work if she came to Bangkok. And she did. I am not in a position to verify that she was good at it or not good at it – and there is an aptitude needed for successful sex work – but she was doing it.

One subject we talked about was what I consider to be the awkward economics of people coming from Africa to Bangkok. When Alice went from Bangkok to Bahrain she went to a place where the same work earned a significantly higher price. But, to come from Africa to Bangkok, it is likely that the economic variable is not as big. The price of a sex act with a sex worker in Madagascar, as an example, is about $14 and that would be for overnight, and maybe less for native men. If a sex worker from Madagascar comes to Bangkok her economic incentive is an increase from $14 to $35 in most venues where the African sex worker can work.

Also the cost of going from Bangkok to Bahrain is likely to be much lower than travel from African countries to Bangkok. Other expenses have to be considered too. The overall point is that the economic incentive (the pull factor in the words of the classically trained demographer) is not as strong.

Allow me to suggest that, when there are so many very nice and attractive Thai sex workers in Thailand, there is no special interest that I can see for African sex workers. In the Summer of 2016 there were only a handful of African sex workers evident in Bangkok, maybe only a dozen. They were mostly older and more, shall we say, exotic that most other sex workers. Almost overnight this field researcher observed a doubling of black sex workers seemingly from Africa. Now, about 7 or 8 months later, there might be a50 or even 100 new younger sex workers in the Nan-Cowboy corridor. Many were from former British colonies and speak English as their official language at home. These new, younger black women came in two waves. Edith was in the first wave. Dolly was in the second wave. Maybe there are others who came as a group now too that I am not aware of since there are more now so even more can blend in among those already here. Dolly had been in Bangkok for about five months and had been on one visa run to keep her visa status legal. But it was time to do it again, just as so many expats living in Thailand do on a regular basis.

This is about meeting her sex traffickers so I will move ahead with less detail now. Dolly was detained at the border of Malaysia for two weeks. She was never given a reason but it is the kind of quasi- legal action that takes place at borders around the world. In this case this appears to be purely racially biased. Of course I didn’t know she had been detained. After a week I tried to reach her. She had a Thai phone that didn’t work in Malaysia, but I finally tried LINE, something I rarely think to use. That is how I learned her story. She had to spend quite a bit of her hard earned money to pay a lawyer assigned by the border police and to pay some unexplained fines before she got out of detention. She knew no one in Malaysia. So, who do you supposed she called? Her traffickers! The men she calls her boss. They were able to refer her to someone who provided housing. They were able to supply some cash for living expenses. Ultimately Dolly was able to go to Singapore where the visa requirements are different. That is when she decided to escape.

Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) do their best to parse out every bit of publicity they can when they are able to find someone who they can help to escape the horrer of sex work. But, by living a real life story of sex work, Dolly was not a victim. Her first step in her “escape” was to contact her traffickers and try to negotiate a payment plan to pay off what she owed for her transition to Bangkok.

A couple of days later I become an actor in this story. Dolly and I connected via LINE. I became her only friend who was not part of the trafficking network. I was the crazy foreign man who was extending the “dream” of going to advanced schooling. Of course I am also a short, chubby white man a few months from his 70th birthday. Here is what we said over LINE:

WED. 3/15
ME: Hey. Are you back in Bkk? How are you doing?”
Reply: No, not yet back in BKK. Am still struggling here in Singapore.
ME: Ok. Of course I worry about you. Do your best.
MON. 3/20 After two missed calls – –
DOLLY: I need your help please.
After two more missed calls and a completed call – –
Dolly: Wow it was nice talking to you and knowing you are willing to help me out with my bags. Thank you so much John.

Dolly asked me go to an address she gave me and get her suitcases. Like so many escapes, she left her suitcases behind when she went on her visa run. The bags were big and she sent me a picture of her biggest red suitcase. I volunteered that the whole adventure would be interesting and I promised to do it.

Here is what she said next: Just be bold. They might try to scare you but don’t. You instead scare them. In fact, if possible just enter in the room, open up the closet, and I am sure you will see my bags. Just grab them and walk out. But they might be heavy. I suggest that you go there with someone to help you carry them.

MY REPLY: Traffickers have a terrible reputation. If you get me killed I will not be happy. Maybe I will take a cop with me. I would rather grab two small bags not big ones. Yes, I might look for a helper.
AND: They can’t do anything like killing but what I know. They will try to stop you from taking the bags.
AND: Yes, go with someone. They just give you the bags and that’s all. I am sure they will be scared and thus think you brave of you and hence let you take the bags.
AND: Tell them you know everything but you just need my bags and that’s all.
AND: One important thing, all my bags are locked.
AND: Thank you John. I know you can do it. And it will be ok. Don’t worry just be brave doing it and it brave doing it and I will be proud of you forever xxx

Tues. 3/21 the next day
Dolly: Did you manage to get my bags for me or not yet?
AND: Just wanna hear that you got my bags back and will be at peace when they are over at your house not my boss’ house. Don’t take long to get them over to your house because if my boss finds out I flew back home it might be difficult to get my bags back. I am flying home tonight. I will tell you all how I made this decision of going back home.
She gave me her email and Ugandan phone number.
So off I went on at about 9 am to an apartment in a large apartment complex. I knew two other women and a man stayed there. Dolly would have been the fourth. I could hear talking and music inside the room. I tried the door and it was unlocked. So, I opened it enough to look in and announced myself. When they were looking I came in and said that I was there to get Dolly’s two suitcases. Just as Dolly said, the closet was by the door and the large red suitcase was there. I did not see a black one of the same style. The man rushed up and made a pretty good claim which I paraphrase as, “What do you think you are doing just walking in and just taking suitcases? I don’t know you!” And, I admit, he had a point. He didn’t know me and I was trying to walk out with feigned nonchalance with a large suitcase. I could get into a tug-of-war with him or make my retreat. After some similar repartee about what I was doing there, I chose the retreat over the tug-of-war.

I could give up completely. My pretty young friend was depending on me. I waited outside the building. First I called a lawyer I have used before. I asked him to call the closest police station and ask them to send an officer to assist (protect) me. That was an American-style response. After an hour’s wait I called the lawyer again. He was out of the office. Someone in his office volunteered that if I wanted Thai police help I should go t their station house. It was about a mile away and, so, an easy walk for me. There was a young policeman there who looked like a high school student. His English was good enough to read my LINE messages and to understand me. He assigned me to two other more mature officers and off we went to go to the apartment on motor scooters. I was a passenger on a motorcycle taxi and I was surprised when one of the policemen paid my driver for my ride.

This time the young man I met earlier stayed out of the way but he was there. An older – maybe 30 or 35 – large black man who had not been there before was the spokesman. I explained that I was asked by Dolly to pick up her bags. He, too, said no. Everything was very reasonable and calm. He had Dolly’s phone number in Singapore, and I did not. He called her and was calm with her too. He handed his phone to me and I recognized her voice. She repeated her request that I take her bags with me. The cycle was repeated twice. Unfortunately, I do not speak Thai. The policemen did not speak English. The Trafficker spoke at least three languages, English, Thai, and probably Swahili which is what assumed he spoke in to Dolly. I have no idea what they said to each other, but twice the phone was handed to me. Twice she said on the phone that she wanted me to get her bags. And each time the police did not understand that because there was no honest translator. Later the policeman said that, if the woman told them that she wanted either me or them to have her bags, they would do that. But I did not successfully translate that. After that conversation in the hall in front of the apartment, we moved down stairs and outside to a table and chairs there. Soon a second even larger black African man arrived. He didn’t say much but he quickly established that he was a good speaker of Thai too. The original spokesman identified himself as being a teacher and called himself arjan (teacher) Freddie (name changed as with others).

At one point I called a friend who could help with translation, Dr. Singha, a professor of sociology. She talked to the policeman on the phone for a while, but I did not get any feedback regarding what she accomplished. Ultimate arjan Freddie and I talked separately while the spokesman for the police spoke with Dr. Singha. I told Freddie that the suitcases only held clothing and a few family remembrances so why did he withhold them from Dolly? He turned that around and asked why I showed this much concern over a box of clothes. Having reached that conclusion, I folded. This wasn’t worthy of addition effort on my part.

Dolly is now in Uganda with her family. I did not answer some calls from her that may have arrived when I was asleep due to time zone differences. I will reach Dolly soon and hear her story about her difficult trip back home and the stressful life change she faces. Thanks to the magic of word processing this paragraph will surely be replaced additional information about Dolly’s story that I have yet to hear.

I assume there are many women, like Dolly, who think they know what they are getting into in order to earn a ticket out of an improvised circumstance in a truly undeveloped country in order to reach a far more developed country like Thailand filled with potential. In my own way I was the potential. I was opening a course to higher education with a ticket to more and more and surely a new life as a citizen of the world which highly educated people often share.

The two older African men are either at a top level of an organized trafficking network, or close to it. They have an investment in learning Thai language which I appreciate more from my experience with them. But that investment keeps them centered in Thailand, I think, when the economics I see from a woman going from most African countries to Thailand is less than the powerful push / pull economics the women want, and frankly were sold on. Ethel is an example of a young woman who kept careful records of how much she owed and how much she had paid off. I asked Dolly several times how much she owed her traffickers and she was never clear about it. Even in my last conversation on the phone she stated number as wide as $12,000 to $4,000. I might have tried to negotiate a pay-off of $2,000 or $3,000 but that was my limit for someone I hardly knew. Dolly spent what she had left of her earnings and was surprised she could get a plane ticket from Singapore to Uganda for about $1,000. She said this when she was mauling over her new understanding of the costs involved in her trafficking. She has a lot more experience she can share with others as a result of these last six months. If there is a fire in her belly she can still be a star in her personal life and a hero to those around her in the same situation. I fondly think of Rosa, a friend in the Dominican Republic, who had traveled (yes for sex work) in Europe on several trips. She would sit (in a bar) with other women and share her experiences. The entire east coast of the Dominican sex industry learned from her. Dolly can be that person in Uganda. She is not likely to work toward a graduate level degree in demography at Chulalongkorn University beside me, but she is a good person and may still be a hero in so many ways.

If there is a core message to this long narration it is that the traffickers – automatically defined by that name as being horrible, brutal people – were in fact very reasonable. They did Dolly no physical harm and even helped her when her trauma was most severe when she was in detention in Malaysia. Dolly herself never expressed any fear. She did not think I was in physical danger. She is home. The traffickers are holding two suitcases of clothing and some personal family things as their hostage. They will probably be paid back even if slowly. And, just as the Thai police seemed to agree, in a way the traffickers do deserve to get the money that was agreed upon. If the cost was to high that is for the women who are desperate for an opportunity to deduce on their own. There is a famous NGO (to be researched later) that some years agree agreed on a program not to oppose trafficking but, rather, to train young women to understand the difficulties of trafficking and learn to be good migrants. I can’t agree more on that point of view.

John who goes under the Pseudonym of Jhonni is a staunch activist fro the truth regarding Human Trafficking and can be contacted via the Biz-find site.

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