Two criminal syndicates suspected of smuggling hundreds of South Korean women into the United States to work at brothels in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas have been broken up with the arrest of 45 people, including the ringleaders, federal authorities announced Friday.
In raids on massage parlors, chiropractic offices and apartments at both ends of the state, federal agents and local law enforcement officers took into custody nearly 150 suspected prostitutes as material witnesses.
U.S. Atty. Debra Wong Yang said there was no firm evidence that the women were coerced into working as prostitutes, although some were found to have been sexually abused.
Yang said federal agents were in the process of interviewing the women to learn how they got here and how they were treated.
“This type of criminal organization exploits the hopes and dreams of immigrants,” the Los Angeles federal prosecutor said.
Law enforcement officials said the two networks operated independently, although they sometimes traded prostitutes.
The Los Angeles organization was headquartered in Koreatown, home of the largest Korean population outside Asia. Koreatown community leaders reacted to the arrests with surprise and shame.
“This is so embarrassing,” said Kenny Shin, president of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce. Shin said he feared that notoriety would hurt Koreatown businesses that are finally recovering from the effects of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
The Southern California investigation was launched two years ago by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal investigation division and the Los Angeles County sheriff’s vice squad.
Using court-authorized wiretaps and undercover informants, investigators said, they were able to track the activities of the organization’s leaders for months.
Among the 18 people arrested in Southern California late Thursday and early Friday on prostitution-related conspiracy charges was the alleged ringleader, Young Joon Jung, about 40, a resident of Koreatown. Investigators also seized more than $1 million.
Yang said the Jung organization was a “top to bottom” criminal enterprise. The organization smuggled women into the United States via Canada and Mexico, usually after they agreed to pay as much as $16,000 from their earnings as prostitutes, she said.
The women were then turned over to an underground network of Korean “taxi” services that assigned and transported them each day to various brothels. Authorities said the brothels operated under the guise of being massage parlors, chiropractic clinics and businesses offering aromatherapy, acupressure, acupuncture and the like.
According to an affidavit, some of those brothels paid chiropractors $600 to $1,500 a month to use their licenses.
Koreatown businesspeople Friday expressed surprise that health services were involved, even though only a few of the area’s many chiropractors and acupuncturists were implicated. Across the street from one Koreatown establishment raided by investigators, clothing store owner Jong Soon Kang said Friday she could hardly believe that people would pay to lease professional licenses to engage in prostitution.
“I have heard about things like that happening in some massage parlors,” she said. “But medical offices? This is very, very serious.”
“I just hope this will not harm the Korean community’s reputation,” she said. “Most Korean immigrants are like me -- we work hard and are good citizens. I hope the mainstream will understand that and not think badly of all of us.”
The suspected brothels were not limited to Koreatown. Some were located in the San Fernando Valley, South Gate, Santa Monica, Redondo Beach and Anaheim, the affidavit said.
The taxi services, which allegedly were run by members and associates of Jung’s organization, occasionally sent the women to work at brothels in Texas, Colorado and Northern California, according to the affidavit.
In one wiretapped conversation recorded in April, one of Jung’s associates was overheard complaining about the arrest of 16 women by U.S. Border Patrol officers as they were being taken across the Canadian border in a recreational vehicle rented in El Monte.
Another alleged ring member lamented a crackdown by Mexican officials in Mexicali, saying the police there were arresting everyone who looked Korean. He said he found a way around the problem by sending the women to Tijuana, where he claimed to have a friendly Mexican immigration officer on his payroll.
In the San Francisco-area roundup, about 400 federal and local officers arrested 27 suspects. Five others charged in a grand jury indictment were still at large. The raid, dubbed Operation Gilded Cage, netted $2 million in cash.
By morning, more than 100 Korean women detained at 11 separate massage parlors had been taken to an undisclosed location. They appeared to be about 20 to 27 years old. Victim assistance workers were living among them in an effort to coax their cooperation, and more than half a dozen local social service and legal groups dispatched aid.
The nine-month Northern California investigation was hailed as a coordinated effort, involving the U.S. attorney’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the San Francisco Police Department, the Internal Revenue Service and the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.
Officials said the operation successfully dismantled a “large criminal organization” headed by Young Joon Yang, 37, of Pleasant Hill, Calif.
Brad Schlozman, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, said the still-unfolding investigation appeared to be “one of our biggest” nationwide. Officials said the San Francisco investigation unraveled a “sophisticated criminal enterprise” and therefore was a more serious case than the one brought in Los Angeles.
According to the indictment, two defendants -- Wu Sang Nah and Sung Yong Kim -- are believed to have smuggled at least two female Korean nationals across the U.S. border from Canada. The women were then taken to Virginia, Los Angeles and eventually San Francisco to work as prostitutes.
The indictment alleges that Young Joon Yang operated a taxi service and travel agency dedicated to transporting those two women as well as many others to and from brothels throughout San Francisco as well as to other prostitution engagements in Las Vegas and other cities.
Many of those arrested worked as drivers or support staff for Young Joon Yang. The more than two dozen men and women indicted face charges of conspiring to bring in and harbor aliens, sex trafficking, money laundering conspiracy, and transporting women in interstate commerce to engage in prostitution.
The indictment does not specify whether the women were working off smuggling debts or engaging in prostitution against their will. Advocates said 20% to 30% of women in such situations typically are coerced into prostitution and that the rest are working as prostitutes voluntarily.
Kevin Ryan, U.S. attorney in San Francisco, said information about the circumstances of their prostitution will probably emerge in the coming days.
“There’s a belief that San Francisco is a major player in human trafficking,” he said. “It’s a gateway to the Pacific, and this is a city where many of the women are brought.”
Friday afternoon, several dozen shocked family members and friends crowded into a federal courtroom to await the first court appearances of the detained, as defense attorneys milled about to pair with potential clients.
“It’s a very broad sweep,” San Jose criminal-defense attorney Tak Chang said of the raids. “I suspect some of these people will be very minor players -- drivers and receptionists. This might be a tactic to get the bigger fish.”
Times staff writer Lee Romney, reporting from San Francisco, contributed to this report.