Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hispanic brothels are a growing problem in the Nashville area

Sheila Burke:

The businesses are housed in nondescript homes and apartments from Madison to south Nashville. The employees and customers come from Mexico and other Latin American countries and the local Hispanic community.

And law enforcement officers tasked with combating the illicit, highly organized businesses say Hispanic brothels are a growing problem in the Nashville area, where single, male immigrant laborers are creating a burgeoning demand for the services of female immigrant prostitutes.

This week, Tomaja Rameriz-Salomon, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, pleaded guilty to charges she was one of two women who regularly worked as a prostitute in an apartment on Welworth Drive in Madison. She was sentenced to six months in jail, though all but 10 days of the sentence was suspended.

"It's here because we have a growing immigrant population … and if you have a growing Hispanic population who are single and who are looking for sex, there's a market for that," said Amber Beckham, local coordinator for World Relief's Network of Emergency Trafficking Services.

Unlike brothels operated from massage parlors or adult entertainment businesses, many Hispanic brothels are set up in regular homes or apartments, right in the middle of Nashville neighborhoods. That can pose a problem for adults and children who live in those areas and are exposed the business of prostitution, authorities said.

During a 2004 Metro police raid at a south Nashville apartment complex, a resident told officers that men seeking prostitutes would knock on her door while searching for the brothel in the complex.

At least one of the customers, the woman said, propositioned her 9-year-old daughter.

Metro police officials don't keep figures on the number of brothels in residential areas, but anecdotal evidence suggests a pervasive and growing problem.

"What we're seeing right now is mostly Hispanics," said Metro Police Detective Peter Dusche, adding that police typically learn of the brothels from irritated neighbors who complain.

"Does that mean that (all the brothels are run by) Hispanics? No. But that's what's being pointed out to us," he said.

Among the local busts:

• In the case that snared Rameriz-Salomon, police in March raided the apartment where they said men would pay $30 to have sex with one of the women. Investigators said that the Welworth Drive location was among at least 10 Hispanic brothels secretly operating in the city.

• Last year, local, state and federal officers uncovered a statewide prostitution network, with a brothel operating in an apartment near Harding Place in Nashville. In addition to the female prostitutes, police found a man working as a manager and another working as a security guard. Authorities also rescued a girl who said she had been smuggled to the U.S. from Mexico at 13, beaten and forced to have sex with as many as 40 men a day.

• In September 2004, police raided seven locations in Madison and Nashville, including an apartment complex on Welch Road where 27 people were arrested on prostitution- and pimping-related charges.

"When you have an immigrant population, obviously some of those are going to be undocumented and when persons are undocumented, it makes them more vulnerable to exploitation," said Beckham, the World Relief worker.

Authorities in Rutherford and Robertson counties, which also have large populations of Hispanic immigrants, said they haven't seen the problem to the extent Nashville has.

Dusche, the Metro vice detective, said most of the immigrant women working as prostitutes in the Nashville area appear to be doing so willingly, though he said there is "at least one other" child sex slave case being worked. He refused to elaborate.

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