June 5, 2000, 10:05PM
Feds bust alleged smuggling scheme
Authorities say Thai women forced to work as prostitutes
By EDWARD HEGSTROM
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
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
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
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
Charges included conspiracy, encouraging unlawful
immigration, fraud and misuse of immigration
documents, transporting aliens and transporting for
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
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
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.