Nationwide human trafficking report calls Tampa a major hub for $2.5 billion massage parlor sex trade

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A groundbreaking report on illicit massage businesses (IMBs) by a Washington DC-based organization identifies an international pipeline for human trafficking that leads right to Kennedy Boulevard. It identifies Tampa as one of the nation’s major “hub” cities for the sexual exploitation of Asian women, a business that researchers say generates $2.5 billion nationwide.

The report by Polaris, a non-profit organization that runs the national human trafficking hotline, is more than a year in the making and offers what appears to be the most comprehensive study of the problem by any organization to date.

Polaris researchers identified 9,000 illicit massage establishments nationwide. It explains in great detail how women are recruited, often under false pretenses, in China and Korea for a life that amounts to sexual slavery in cities across America.

“It’s not the job they were promised. They’re not paid a base wage. They don’t know the language. They don’t have access to other lucrative jobs and often their housing and transportation is covered by the trafficker,” said Polaris Executive Director Rochelle Keyhan.

The report identifies Florida as a hot spot for the problem and Tampa as one of the cities that is home to dozens of illicit massage parlors.

“We read reviews from [sex] buyers in Tampa,” Keyhan said. “And those reviews we read clearly note those buyers are aware those women aren’t consenting, are aware the women are uncomfortable.”

8 On Your Side first exposed the problem in our “Storefronts for Sex” investigation in April 2017. We chronicled five years of Tampa police prostitution reports and revealed how Asian spa workers dress in lingerie and secretively work behind locked doors guarded by surveillance cameras.

Our reports prompted an activist group called Clean Up Kennedy to form and call for action. Our investigation also helped inspire the Tampa City Council to pass a revised bathhouse ordinance aimed at ending the sex trade in those massage parlors. That city legislation now awaits the signature of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Our investigation also revealed that Tampa Code Enforcement Board Chair and Public Nuisance Abatement Board member Rick Barcena was a landlord of one of the massage parlors where Tampa police identified prostitution activity. The Polaris report cites our story and names Barcena as part of the problem. The massage business operating on Barcena’s Kennedy Boulevard property recently closed and Barcena is looking for a new tenant.

His attorney told us Barcena didn’t know what was going on behind closed doors on his property and tried unsuccessfully to evict the tenant when police told him. Barcena dropped the eviction action after a confidential settlement with the massage parlor owners.

The 100 page Polaris report cites numerous complexities of the human trafficking problem in illicit massage parlors and calls for governments, communities and media to take action on a number of suggested solutions.

Some of those solutions include holding massage business owners, landlords and customers accountable and helping victims who are often targeted in prostitution arrests while massage business owners go unpunished.

Tampa’s new ordinance will attempt to do just that through required inspections. Mayor Bob Buckhorn signed the measure into law Wednesday.

“I think it’s long overdue,” Buckhorn told 8 On Your Side. “The time has come and gone for those institutions and those establishments to be allowed to fester on Kennedy Blvd.”

The Polaris report singles out Rick Barcena who is chairman of Tampa’s Code Enforcement Board and a member of the city’s Public Nuisance Abatement Board, for his role as a landlord of a former spa cited by police for prostitution. Buckhorn questions why Barcena still serves on those boards.

“I think the individual that serves on that board that was appointed by city council should resign,” Buckhorn said.

Buckhorn asked for a copy of the Polaris report and says he’s determined to follow through on the bathhouse ordinance recently passed by the Tampa City Council.

“Whatever we can do to curtail that and end that pipeline, particularly for young girls. As the father of daughters, I get it,” said Buckhorn. “I mean, I get it.”

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