Foreign Exchange Students Turned to Sex Slaves in Florida

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(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

In 2011, several students from Kazakhstan came to Florida to work at a yoga studio outside Miami. Each had received a visa from the US State Department, and they were to have an experience that exposed them to a foreign culture and allowed them to practice their English.

Instead, the students were sold for sex. Last week, these students’ boss, Jeffrey Jason Cooper, 46, was indicted by a federal grand jury in the South District of Florida on charges that included sex trafficking, selling foreign nationals into prostitution, and used his facilities to operate a prostitution enterprise.

According to reporters at the Miami New Times, Cooper pretended to be Dr. Janardana Dasa, an owner and director of Janardana’s Yoga and Wellness S.A. He used the alias to recruit college students from Kazakhstan through the State Department’s Summer Work Travel program.

Generally, the program provides foreign college students with an opportunity to complete a semester of their post-secondary education abroad. It gives students an opportunity to live and work in the United States during their summer vacations. The program does caution the international exchange companies with which it works against placing students in jobs associated with human trafficking, such as modeling, housekeeping, and janitorial services.

“We are a yogic and holistic healing and wellness worldwide organization. We are dedicated to giving people knowledge of the numerous yogic disciplines, healthy eating, and holistic lifestyle to promote better health and longer life,” Cooper wrote as he advertised his yoga company to prospective foreign students.

When the students arrived, they were informed they would be performing a different kind of work. They were taught how to do their explicit jobs by Cooper’s female associates. Cooper denied that the students were performing massage work when asked by the placement agency based in Chicago that he had duped into allowing him to host students. Cooper’s indictment alleges that he tried to traffic at least three other victims that summer.

If convicted, Cooper will face a minimum of 15 years in prison for sex trafficking and a maximum of 20 years for the charges of fraud. Other charges could bring additional prison time. For his part, Cooper is maintaining his innocence.

According to Katie Mettler of The Washington Post, Miami’s culture of vacation, parties, and sex has turned South Florida into a hotspot of human trafficking. Federal data ranks Miami among the top three US cities for sex trafficking, and Florida ranked third among US states where individuals made the most phone calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

In 2011, Miami became one of the first cities to host an Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team. The effort, launched by the US Attorney General and Secretaries of Labor and Homeland Security, intends to streamline federal criminal investigations into human trafficking offenses and raise awareness about the pernicious problem.

Encouragingly, cities that have participated in the Anti-Trafficking Coordination efforts have reported an 86% rise in prosecutions for forced labor and sex trafficking. By comparison, cities that have not participated in the initiative only saw a 14% rise in such prosecutions.