EL PASO, Texas -- They are located in strip malls appearing like a legitimate storefront, but behind closed doors some El Paso massage parlors become a front for not just prostitution, but also human trafficking.
A three-month investigation revealed there are dozens of these establishments with explicit reviews in the Sun City operating seemingly in broad daylight. ABC-7 worked closely with the El Paso County Attorney's office to learn more about the process in place to close these places down.
On Oct. 5, the County Attorney's Nuisance Abatement Team served 'Health Massage' in east El Paso a temporary restraining order for code violations. An 18-month probe revealed sex acts had taken place in this establishment, with investigators observing:
"The establishment allowed massage therapists to dress in a sexually provocative manner... The establishment advertises on websites commonly used to offer sex services using phrases in advertising that lead a reasonable person to believe sex is offered for compensation."
That raid uncovered what investigators said are signs of an illegal spa.
"It shows some of the massage rooms are used as a little bedroom, it has bedding that is not typical for a massage parlor. You can see clothes are kept in there shoes are kept under the bed, we found luggage inside of the rooms," said Amy Monsivais, trial team chief for the County Attorney's Office.
ABC-7 crews observed firsthand what Monsivais was referencing while investigators served the temporary restraining order. A refrigerator was stocked with food, a pantry housed spices and there was even lettuce sitting out - which are not things that Monsivais says you'd normally see at a legitimate massage business.
Investigators scour the dark web where sites like 'Rubmaps' review sex spas. Their workers are rated on their bodies, sexual services and fees. A snapshot taken this month revealed more than 60 massage establishments in El Paso had explicit reviews.
While the County Attorney's Office looks for civil violations, like operating without a license and masseuses living inside the parlors, in order to shut these places down, the Texas Department of Public Safety launches a simultaneous criminal investigation into prostitution. If they suspect international human trafficking is occurring, then federal agents get involved.
This past year alone, DPS served criminal search warrants at 13 establishments. However, authorities noted that civil efforts aimed at closing down these establishments are sometimes a separate process from the execution of criminal search warrants.
"They were search warrants, they weren't actions to shut them down. They were done by law enforcement, that's not what they do. We had at least information on one of those parlors and we were able to get enough information to file for a temporary restraining order," Monsivais explained.
So who is bringing these women to the Borderland, and how did they end up trapped in this illicit trade?
Collective Liberty, a national nonprofit that helps victims of human trafficking, told ABC-7 that these women are recruited from Asia and sold a false promise of the American dream.
"If they didn't have immigration status you can.t get most jobs. They went through their network, their community and that's how they ended up here. And that's often how they end up traveling, they think, overnight to maybe another part of New York - but ending up in Chicago, Oklahoma, Indiana and not even realizing what state they are in," said Rochelle Keyhan, the CEO of Collective Liberty.
Keyhan said these vulnerable women end up stranded in unknown places isolated by language and, in the end, charged with prostitution.
"If they go to law enforcement for help, they know there is a high likelihood that they are going to get arrested, so they are not going to ask for help. We need to be thinking, 'what is the end game here?' Do we care more about prostitution than trafficking, and if so, we really need to consider what the priorities are: What is the worst crime?" Keyhan said.
Monsivais told ABC-7 that in the last four years, the County Attorney's Office has been able to close down 10 massage parlors through civil lawsuits.