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Behind closed doors 

Groups try to drag human trafficking into the light

click to enlarge Nola Theiss will be one of the visiting experts speaking at a - Sept. 20 symposium.
  • Nola Theiss will be one of the visiting experts speaking at a Sept. 20 symposium.

The entrance at an Asian massage spa on Manitou Avenue is a short corridor partially lit by a muted television set. There are no chairs, but the wait on a Friday afternoon is short: A barefoot woman in a sleeveless gold nightie quickly appears from near the back.

"Are you here for a massage?" she asks, smiling as she uses her right hand to guard against imminent wardrobe malfunction.

Her question goes unanswered as she leads the way into a small, darkened room near the front of the shop, where a massage table and sofa await. She continues smiling as she leans on the table and asks to be paid $60 for an hour of massage she assures me I'll enjoy.

When I explain I am a reporter and only want to ask questions, she folds her arms and speaks coldly. Though she says she's licensed to give massages, she refuses to take me to where such documents are stored, or even to tell me her name.

"I don't really have to tell you anything," she says.

And with that, I am escorted outside, the door closing firmly behind me.

Last fall, KOAA-Channels 5/30 reported that it used a hidden camera to record offers of sex at four area massage shops. Lt. Al Harmon of the region's multi-agency Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence unit estimates there are about 20 such businesses operating in El Paso County.

Asked how many offer sex for money, he blurts out, "Twenty."

But Harmon then notes that investigators have not yet visited a new place on the west side. At most others, he says, employees have been cited for prostitution, for which a first offense carries a $50 fine.

Less clear is whether some, or even most, of the women have been forced into prostitution via human trafficking. The distinction is crucial; it flips the tables by offering the women, many of whom come from overseas, special visas to stay in the country, and even counseling, support and protection.

Harmon says investigators have seen signs that some women could be trafficking victims, such as constant turnover and luggage tags from San Francisco, Chicago and other cities. In one case, he says, a driver showed up just after a woman was ticketed, saying he was there to take her to Denver.

But, Harmon says, no one's spoken out as a victim.

Betty Edwards, a past director for a four-state region of Zonta International, a women's advancement organization, has spoken in Colorado and other states about international human trafficking. She says she's convinced it's happening here.

So the Zonta Club of the Pikes Peak Area, with Youth with a Mission Strategic Frontiers, will host a free symposium to increase awareness about trafficking on Sept. 20. Edwards says residents will learn what to look for, like bars on windows at massage spas or employees who never leave, or can become active with an action group to fight trafficking locally.

A new law will require employees at Colorado massage spas to be trained and certified beginning in April 2009, and it will increase penalties for violations. That could help close some of the spas, says Nola Theiss, executive director of Florida-based Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships and a speaker at the upcoming symposium.

That said, the problem is not limited to sex workers it also affects domestic workers and employees in agriculture and tourism, many of whom are forced into ever-increasing debt.

Of course, Theiss says, "You won't find these cases unless you are looking for them."

lane@csindy.com


Human Trafficking Awareness Symposium, hosted by the Zonta Club of the Pikes Peak Area and Youth with a Mission Strategic Frontiers
Youth with a Mission, 505 Popes Bluff Trail
Saturday, Sept. 20, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Free, with donations requested and lunch provided. For details, visit htasymposium.blogspot.com; to RSVP, call 800/367-9926.
  • Investigators have seen signs locally that some women could be victims.

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