4 Investigates: Prostitution in massage parlors | KOB 4
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4 Investigates: Prostitution in massage parlors

Chris Ramirez
September 15, 2019 10:38 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—They operate in plain sight—open during all hours of the night.

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Massage parlors that look legitimate on the outside, hiding illegal activity that takes place on the inside.

Attorney General Hector Balderas said this type of crime is complex.

“We now realize these are sophisticated, organized criminals,” he said.

Some of these businesses are targets for crimes like prostitution and human trafficking. The KOB 4 Investigative team went undercover into one of these parlors and it did not take much for the massage staff to proposition KOB 4 staff for sex—but with a cost.

At one massage parlor, the undercover KOB 4  staffer was required to pay $40 up front to cover a “house fee”. The parlor worker used hand motions to indicate if the staffer was willing to pay $40 more as a “tip”.

To illustrate how big of a problem this is, the KOB 4 Investigates team searched through city records and found 849 massage businesses in Albuquerque. That is about five massage businesses for every square mile in Albuquerque. That includes legitimate massage businesses and spas and the parlors that offer sex acts to clients.

“It’s important to note that not all Asian massage parlors are doing illegal activity,” said Human Trafficking Commander Anthony Maez. “We’ve looked at them and there are of course some that are.”

Maez leads the Human Trafficking Division in the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office. He said there are signs that many of the women offering sex acts are victims of human trafficking. Some obvious signs are living conditions.

The KOB 4 Investigates team caught an example of this at one parlor location. Beds were cramped into a small living space across from massage rooms. In another location, our cameras caught an open air shower.

Albuquerque Police Commander Mizel Garcia said there are signs that can be observed on the outside too. Garcia oversees APD’s Vice Unit.

“If the windows are all covered and darkened—it’s a clue,” he said. “If there is an inordinate amount of cameras inside and outside, if the doors are locked and you have to buzz your way through.”

Garcia said the 24 hour sign or the $40 price tag is another clue.

“If you are getting a massage for $40, that’s a clue too because most people, when you go to a massage, are a lot more expensive than that,” he said.

Police admit, the problem has only grown in the last decade. One reason is the fact that these cases are tough for law enforcement to investigate.

“Investigating these businesses is very difficult– not just for APD,” Garcia said. “Reason being, it's difficult to get the cooperation of the workers that work these businesses.”

Both Commander Garcia and Agent Maez said sex workers often fear turning on their trafficker, and refuse to help investigators or accept help themselves.

Maez cites a few different reasons for that.

“It could be intimidation of the trafficker. The trafficker knows about their personal life. The trafficker has control of their documents. They don't know anyone here in the states,” Maez said. “They've been told by the trafficker that if law enforcement does help them that they would be sent back to the country they came from.”

Attorney General Hector Balderas believes many traffickers are part of large international organizations. He said they recruit young women from Southeast Asia with false promises of big dreams in America. Once in the United States, Balderas said the women are moved from city to city in a circuit.

During a massage, a KOB 4 undercover staffer heard possible evidence that Albuquerque may be on that circuit of cities.

In broken English, the masseuse told our staffer she moved from Los Angeles.

New Mexico is one of the states that does not allow inspections of massage parlors. While state law allows state inspectors to surprise-inspect businesses like tattoo parlors and nail salons, massage parlors are not on that list.

Marguerite Salazar is the superintendent of the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department. She said she is afraid the problem is growing.

“I fear that because we don’t know at this point,” Salazar said. “We haven’t  been able to go in so it could be much greater than we think.”

Superintendent Salazar and Attorney General Balderas are crafting a bill they intend to push in the next legislative session that will allow the state legal authority to inspect massage parlors.

“We would be able to tell, just by doing a walk through whether it is a bona fide establishment,” she said. “It gives us the power to shut them down.”

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Chris Ramirez

Copyright 2019 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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