Pandemic prostitution increasingly profitable in Queens

When you see the women on certain street corners along Roosevelt Avenue in East Elmhurst, wearing mini skirts and sometimes schoolgirl skirts, you notice they’re often scanning their cell phones. Law enforcement believes that’s because they’re making contact with customers who find the women’s “massage” services on a website called Bedpage.com, or they’re simply steering them in off the street. Aren’t we in the middle of a pandemic? “I don’t believe that getting sick was one of their concerns,” said Miguel Collazo, special agent in charge of the Human Trafficking Task Force, Group 2, which looks at victims shuttled from China, Eurasia, and Russia, and then coerced into sex work. “There are gangs that have seen this as a very lucrative way for them to make money, and you also have individuals,” Collazo said. During our time watching one corner on Roosevelt Avenue, we saw several men arrive and head into a doorway about 50 feet from the main thoroughfare. Jesus Londono spoke to PIX11 News about the activity on Roosevelt Avenue because he was upset about losing his mother, Maria, to COVID-19 last year and found the parade of women near certain corners offensive. “They’re not contributing to the community,” Londono said, as the No. 7 elevated subway rattled overhead along Roosevelt Avenue. “What if they have COVID?” PIX11 traveled to several Queens neighborhoods that we’ve visited before, in pre-pandemic days, and found signs of solicitation on 40th Road, off Main Street, in Flushing, where the NYPD Vice Squad had shut down a number of day spas in 2019 and slapped them with prostitution violations. Maya Morena, an activist and college student who says she did some escort work before the pandemic, doesn’t believe all the women are being trafficked. “It’s hard to regulate survival, which is what I see it as,” Morena said. “I definitely think the environment is more different because of COVID,” Morena added. “There’s definitely a lot more desperation, in terms of street-based sex work.” Still, Christopher Muller-Tabanera, national director of Heyrick Research, thinks at least 80% of the women involved in sex work are not doing so by choice. “We’re talking about organized crime, network-type activity,” Muller-Tabanera said. “Managers, bosses and traffickers are in this to make money,” he noted, “still wanting women to provide services despite the public health crisis.” Trafficking can involve forced sex work or other forms of labor. Agent Collazo said a Department of Justice study in 2015 found trafficking was a $32 billion industry. “By all accounts, the new studies today are indicating that it is a $150 billion business,” Collazo said. “That’s almost a five-time increase.” A study by Heyrick Research recently estimated there are 629 illicit massage businesses in all of New York City. Queens, by far, had the most of any borough, with at least 269.

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