Traffickers prey on vulnerabilities, including poverty and gender bias. They also use racial, ethnic and religious prejudices and stereotypes to target and even market victims.

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Before she left her home in Thailand, the young woman believed that America was a “miracle country.”

She soon learned that the miracle wasn’t real.

The woman, testifying last year in federal court in St. Paul, Minnesota, described how a recruiter approached her in Thailand with the promise of a job in the United States. She accepted, hoping it would help her family escape the debt they carried after a devastating flood.

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But the leaders of a sex trafficking ring that brought her and hundreds of other women from Asia to the United States had different plans. After they arrived, the women were told that each of them had to pay off up to $60,000 in debt by providing sex in spas, massage parlors and apartment brothels across the country.

The woman, identified only as Amy in court records, said under oath that she was forced to have sex with as many as 10 men a day. “I had to treat them as if they were my personal god,” she said.

Her testimony helped convince jurors to convict five defendants on charges of organized sex trafficking and money laundering. Thirty-one other people pleaded guilty in what prosecutors described as one of the largest trafficking cases in U.S. history.

But the convictions did little to slow a lucrative industry built upon the sexual exploitation of tens of thousands of women and children each year in the United States.

Sex trafficking is like any other business. It flourishes only because there’s enormous demand from buyers.

One of those buyers, police say, was New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was charged on Feb. 22 with two counts of solicitation. Authorities say Kraft was twice caught on video paying for sex acts after arriving in chauffeur-driven Bentleys at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida.

Kraft, reported to be worth more than $6 billion, has denied the allegations.

Massage parlors are the most visible outposts of the nation’s burgeoning underground sex trade. Orchids of Asia set up shop in a strip mall near a Taco Bell, a nail salon and a grocery store. The Polaris Project, one of the nation’s leading anti-trafficking organizations, estimates that more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses operate in the United States.

Authorities say most of the women who worked at Orchids of Asia and seven other Florida massage parlors raided as part of a yearlong sex trafficking investigation came to the United States from China. They were promised decent jobs and the chance for better lives but instead were coerced into performing sex acts on men they didn’t know and might never see again.

It’s a story I saw repeated over and over again as I spent much of 2016 and 2017 investigating sex trafficking in the United States and seven other countries through a grant from the Society of Professional Journalists.

My research included interviews with more than 60 trafficking survivors, ages 6 to 64, who still bore the emotional and sometimes physical scars of exploitation. The United Nations estimates that 4.8 million people, mostly women and girls, become victims of sex trafficking each year around the world.

Traffickers prey on vulnerabilities, including poverty and gender bias. They also use racial, ethnic and religious prejudices and stereotypes to target and even market victims.

It’s not by chance that the great majority of those exploited in U.S. massage parlors are impoverished women from Asia. I long ago lost count of the number of ads I’ve seen promising “hot young Asians” on Backpage (before federal authorities shut it down last year) and other sites.

In January, the Chicago Sun Times obtained court records that alleged a political consultant arranged for Alderman Danny Solis to have sex at massage parlors in exchange for his help on the Chicago City Council.

Authorities recorded this phone conversation between Solis and the consultant, Roberto Caldero:

“I want to get a good massage, with a nice ending. Do you know any good places?” Solis asked.

Caldero suggested a place. “What kind of women do they got there?” Solis said.

“Asian,” Caldero said.

“Oh good. Good, good, good. I like Asian,” the alderman said.

Men who buy sex may be billionaires or big city politicians, or the guy driving your Uber. But one thing many have in common is an indifference to the suffering they subsidize.

While visiting a court-ordered program for sex buyers in Seattle, I asked the all-male participants if they ever thought about the lives of the fellow human beings they’d purchased. “I don’t want to know how the sausage is made,” one man answered.

One of my final interviews for the EXPLOITED project, published in 2018 by the USA Today Network, was with a 17-year-old survivor from a small town in Indiana. Her story illustrates buyers’ callousness even when the victim is a wounded child.

My heart ached when I first saw her, sitting in a Starbucks with her therapist. Even then, two years after the commercial sexual abuse had ended, she looked so young and vulnerable.

When she was a 15-year-old high school freshman, the girl had run away from a foster home. She survived by stealing food and moving from sofa to sofa for a night or two in homes of people she barely knew.

At a gas station one day, she shared a cigarette with a man who said he made music videos. He offered her a job, and with seemingly nothing to lose, she agreed to leave with him.

At first, he bought her clothes and food and gave her pot to smoke. He also rented a motel room. She told herself it was all she could expect from life.

Then men started to knock on the motel room door. Five men a day. Day after day.

Until in a month, 150 men had paid for sex with a child too young for a driver’s license.

I wondered how so many men could live with themselves after paying to abuse this child. The answer is that they didn’t know — because they didn’t want to know — the age or background of the person whose body they paid to use. The sex trade is a don’t ask-don’t tell operation, where buyers’ biggest concern is to protect their own anonymity.

At the Orchids of Asia spa, according to the probable cause affidavit, Robert Kraft arrived a minute before 11 a.m. on Jan. 20. Police say a video shows that he paid at the front desk, then undressed in a room where an Asian woman then performed a sex act on him. He dressed, handed the woman a tip and left out the front door for his waiting Bentley.

Police say the encounter between the billionaire and an exploited woman from China lasted less than 15 minutes.

Later that day in Kansas City, Kraft cradled the Lamar Hunt Trophy after his Patriots claimed another AFC championship. One of the richest men in the world celebrated another memorable day as TV cameras captured his excitement and joy.

At the Orchids of Asia that evening, the women settled in for the night after the front door was locked at 9 p.m. Police say they slept on the same massage tables where men had sprawled during the day. The women, far from home and even farther from their dreams, had a few hours to themselves before a new parade of men arrived in the morning.

One long day of serving the sexual demands of strangers was done.

Another day of life in America would soon begin.