June 5, 2000, 10:05PM

Feds bust alleged smuggling scheme

Authorities say Thai women forced to work as prostitutes

Copyright 2000 Houston Chronicle

Federal authorities brought charges Monday against seven people who allegedly smuggled Thai women into Houston where they were forced to work locally as prostitutes.

The charges filed in U.S. district court came as the result of a ground-breaking international sting operation run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Undercover INS officers traveled to Bangkok, Thailand, and Santiago, Chile, to investigate the ring, according to court papers.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward F. Gallagher III described the investigation as "one of the most significant of its kind ever done."

The indictment alleges that the Bangkok-based operation included two elements. Chinese immigrants paid a smuggling fee and were brought to the United States and set free. Additionally, Thai women were brought to Houston and forced to work as prostitutes in local establishments known as "modeling studios." The women were required to work until the cost of their smuggling was paid off.

The charges come as national attention increasingly focuses on the smuggling of women for prostitution. Between 40,000 and 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States every year, according to a 1999 CIA report that labels the phenomenon a "contemporary manifestation of slavery."

The report noted that Houston is an increasingly important point of entry for the women.

The CIA found that the women are often promised jobs as waitresses or maids, only to arrive in the United States to find that they are forced into prostitution. They are confined to brothels where the entrance is sometimes guarded and their passports are taken away.

The smuggling operations are typically small and loosely organized, but they can bring in profits of more than $1 million a year, according to the report.

"Most of the time, these women have no idea they are being brought over for prostitution," said Jennifer Stanger of the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. "They get here and they are basically stuck."

The court papers name nine Asians who were allegedly brought to the United States by the defendants. However, one of the defendants in Bangkok told an undercover INS agent that he was capable of bringing as many as 100 Chinese immigrants a month into the United States.

Three of those charged -- Phiet The Mai, 27, Sriwan Sakyai, 28, and Hoc Phan, 43 -- live in Houston. A fourth, Ratiporn Tantirojanakitkan, 30, is from Los Angeles. Three others live in Bangkok and have not yet been apprehended.

Charges included conspiracy, encouraging unlawful immigration, fraud and misuse of immigration documents, transporting aliens and transporting for prostitution.

The charges each carry maximum sentences varying between five and 10 years.

The sting operation began on May 1, 1998, when an undercover INS agent met with Mai to arrange a deal whereby the agent would sell false immigration documents, court papers said. The agent then sold Mai several false immigration documents for $3,000 apiece.

The agent later met with Sakyai, who said she had paid off her own smuggling fee to come to the United States and was now supplying Thai prostitutes for modeling studios in Houston.

In February, Sakyai agreed to introduce the agent to her "Thai boss" in Bangkok. At least some of the Thai women flew from Bangkok to the United States. But the court papers do not indicate how the Chinese migrants were brought into the country.

Nor is there any indication as to whether the Thai women knew they were brought to the United States to work as prostitutes, or how much they were charged for their smuggling.

Gallagher refused to comment beyond the scope of the court papers. An INS spokeswoman contacted late Monday said she could not comment on the case until today.