Friday, 7 July 2017

How Spain's Brothels Filled with Romanian Women & Girls

60% of women prostituted in Spanish brothels are from Romania, but how do they get there? This article draws on interviews with prostitution survivors, the police and prosecutors to reveal how Romanian trafficking gangs are extending their operations across Spain.

Spanish police raiding a brothel where young Romanian women are expolited.


Early one morning in August 2007, an 18 year old girl stepped onto a bus that would take her away from her hometown of Slobozia in south-eastern Romania. Marina carried nothing more than a small backpack containing a bundle of clothes and a few family mementoes; a photo of her two little sisters and a silver necklace that her mother had given her. Although many tears were shed the night before leaving, she hoped to build a better life. She was travelling to Spain to work on a farm. It wasn't her dream job (she had always wanted to work in an office), but the promise of a better future kept a smile on her face for the entire journey. 

The minibus, which also carried another 15 young women from Slobozia, travelled 4,500 km and passed through five countries; Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany and France. The journey took three and a half days and its final destination was a town in the province of Valencia.

On arrival they were met by two Romanian men of intimidating appearance; they were muscle-bound and their arms and necks were covered in tattoos. They took the girls to a large building where they were joined by another five or six Latin American women. There were 25 individual rooms on the top floor and Marina was given room 12: a number that is burned into her memory forever. That first night she slept in the room where, for the following two years, she would go through hell.  

The following morning the two men brought all the girls together in a canteen on the ground floor. A third man, thinner and better dressed, accompanied them. The stranger announced that from that moment on they would be prostitutes and, without another word, the two henchmen slapped each of the young women across the face. Two of the girls who struggled were punched in the ribs and kicked in the legs. The others, scared to death, did not put up any resistance.

Marina was exploited in the brothel for almost two years, from five in the afternoon until five in the morning, seven days a week. She attended to a minimum of four men each day but on some days there were as many as 15. The trafficking gang kept almost all of the women’s earnings and paid to rent the rooms from the Spanish owner of the building.

Marina managed to escape one morning in July 2009. At the break of dawn she jumped out of the window of her room onto the patio below, climbed over a fence and ran. She made it to a hospital in a nearby town, where she received medical attention and was attended to by social services. However, she did not report what had happened to the police. Today Marina lives in a town in Castellón with her partner, a Valenciano. She is now 27 years old and the mother of two little girls. "Now I'm happy. Little by little, I'm putting what happened behind me".


"Today, six out of ten women prostituted in Spanish brothels come from Romania, which is a fairly recent development", says José Nieto, chief inspector at the Center of Intelligence and Risk Analysis (CIAR) with Spain’s National Police. Romanian trafficking mafias have “filled this country's brothels" he adds.

But how have they done it? The increase in 18 to 30 year old Romanian women entering Spain to be sexually exploited began in the mid 2000s, following a change in immigration law. Since 2001, all citizens of Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Colombia and Cuba are required to have a visa to enter the country. Up until then, Spain's brothels had been filled with Latina women. The shared language and similarities in culture were considered attractive by male buyers in Spain. After the change in the law, the number of Latina women fell sharply and the brothel owners began to look for girls from other countries. At this point the Romanian mafias entered the picture.

Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, belongs to the ‘Schengen Area’ of European states where border controls have been abolished. The mafias began to traffick hundreds of young girls across the borders, usually lured by false offers of work. First, they are usually transported across the Hungarian border by bus. Once inside Hungary, the journey to Spain is simple. "They pass from one country to another by road", says Nieto. "It's the cheapest method and the traffickers are looking to reduce costs".

The two main routes used to traffick women from Romania to Spain (APRAMP)

There are two main trafficking routes from Romania to Spain; Hungary-Austria-Italy- France, or via Hungary-Austria-Germany-France. Buses or minibuses are used for the journey, which usually costs no more than 80 euros. "They’ve installed a low-cost model", explains inspector Nieto from his office in Madrid. "Low travel costs, lots of work done by hand..."

When the women and girls arrive in Spain they are installed in brothels which are usually Spanish-owned. Here the vicious circle begins; the Romanian pimps supply the (usually very young) women to attract men to the brothels, the pimps collect the money at the end of each day, then they pay the rent to the brothel owner.

This system ensures that all parties make a profit except the women. "That's the process here and now 60% of the women prostituted in the brothels in Spain are from Romania", says Nieto. "The women only get a few euros to buy cigarettes and little else". 


In the past the Romanian sex trafficking gangs, according to inspector Nieto, were "in thrall to the bigger Russian mafias", traditionally the most dangerous and violent criminal organisations in Eastern Europe. But the Romanian gangs have learned from their big brothers and perfected their working methods. Although they use violence against the women, they hardly ever kill them. "They know they’ll make a lot of money from the women, so the pimps don't allow it. That would be like killing the golden goose", says inspector Nieto. "But of course they use violence. When the women don't make enough money, they beat them".

Police raid a brothel in Ibiza where 10 Romanian women were exploited

Their modus operandi is the following; each day, in the final hour of the morning, the pimp calls by the brothel where the women are being sexually exploited with the complicity of the brothel owner. He is accompanied by several other gang members and the madams who they employ to run the brothels. The pimp assembles all the women together and they hand over all of their earnings to him. Then, in front of all the others, they beat the woman who made the least money, as a way to indoctrinate and terrify them into submission. "They demand results and if they don’t get them, they beat the women. They terrify all of the women by picking out one to be beaten each day”.


The Romanian mafias have not only extended their tentacles into the brothels in Spain. They have also developed other ways of making money from the women, including forced marriage and the sexual exploitation of young girls, including minors, renting single rooms and apartments in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao, Seville and other locations across Spain.

In the case of forced marriage, the Romanian mafias arrange for the young women to marry men who want to obtain an EU residence card. The men are usually from sub-Saharan African countries, who they charge around 10,000 euros per marriage. Nigerian mafias, who are also heavily involved in the sex trade, often marry their bosses to Romanian women in Spain so they can stay in the country and move around Europe freely. Once they are married, they can control the women and concentrate on other criminal activities such as dealing in counterfeit money, gambling or trafficking stolen vehicles.

Although the marriages are recorded as being voluntary by the Spanish justice system, in reality the women are coerced by the traffickers who brought them into the country. Practically all of the profits go to the criminal organisations, not the women.  "We can only act if the girls report to the police", says Nieto. "Investigating these types of cases is very complicated because it's totally legal". Once married, the girls continue to be sexually exploited by the pimps through prostitution.

In addition to brothels and forced marriages, the Romanian mafias have also expanded into prostituting women in individual rented rooms where they can imprison one, or sometimes several young women at a time. These women are usually between 14 and 20 years old. In the case of minors, the parents have to give legal authorisation to allow them to leave Romania unaccompanied. In return for signing the authorisation they receive between 2000 and 3000 euros from the traffickers.

"In Spain more and more young women are being offered in single rooms and rented apartments, and many of them are minors", explains Rocío Mora, the director of APRAMP, an NGO that provides support to prostituted women and favours the abolition of the sex trade. "The younger they are, the more vulnerable they are. That's why they enslave them in single rooms which become prison cells".


Maria was trafficked into Spain when she was a minor, shortly after her father died. Her mother, unable to look after her alone, signed the authorisation for the journey and handed her daughter over to a mafia in exchange for 5000 euros. Although Maria thought she would be working on a farm or in domestic work, the reality that awaited her was very different. 

She was taken to a bar in a town of 2000 inhabitants in the province of Toledo, central Spain. Four members of a Romanian clan installed María in a flat which was supervised by a madam 24 hours a day. She wasn’t allowed to leave the building and if she refused to service a client she was beaten and drugged. She was also forced to marry one of the clan members, who raped her whenever he wanted.

The girl, who contracted a serious sexually transmitted disease, was freed at the beginning of July this year. After living through countless assaults, she decided to report. A short time before her rescue she was at the point of being sold again to another Romanian mafia for 2000 euros. However, the sale did not go through due to a disagreement over the price. Today María is trying to rebuild her life with the help of APRAMP.

Street prostitution in Madrid

"Everything is very well-planned and orchestrated”, explains Rocío Mora. “The buyer phones to obtain the services of a girl, then the pimps go to pick him up in a car and take him to the room, trying not to reveal the exact location". The girls have to be available 24 hours a day and some service up to 40 men a day. "They don't rest or go out into the street. Once inside, it is very difficult for them to leave a place like that. What's more, they are terrified by threats of violence against their families if they tell anyone about their situation”.

45% of all the the women that APRAMP attend to are from Romania. The NGO has identified the cities where most of the girls come from; a list which includes Bucharest, Tulcea, Babadag, Bistrita, Galati, Suceava, Constata, Slobozia, Buzau and Vrancea. 
The victims come from extremely low-income families, and are often from Roma gypsy communities that suffer discrimination and exclusion. Some parents are tempted into selling their daughters to the mafias as a way to reduce the economic burden on the family, explains inspector Nieto.


Although the trafficking mafias' traditional way of luring young women into prostitution is by offering them fake job contracts, the Spanish National Police have detected a relatively new method: the use of 'lover boys'. Romanian traffickers employ seemingly kindly, good-looking men to seduce vulnerable young women. After falling in love they are persuaded to go to Spain to find work. Once they arrive they are forced into prostitution. Patricia Fernández, a Spanish Prosecutor specialising in immigration issues, confirms that the ‘lover boy’ approach is becoming more common; “they romance the girls, take them to Spain and then abandon them to the mafias".

In 2015 Spanish prosecutors attended to 169 cases of sexually exploited Romanian women, three of whom were minors. 24 members of Eastern European mafias were sentenced to prison for human trafficking in Spain in 2014. "To get to the root of the problem it’s necessary for us to work with the Romanian authorities", explains Patricia Fernández. "If we don’t, it will be impossible to put an end to it".


In February 2013 Ioan Clamparu, alias 'Pig’s Head', was sentenced to 30 years in prison by a court in Madrid for crimes including human trafficking and procuring for prostitution. The 30-year stretch was the maximum sentence requested by the prosecutors and was unprecedented in its severity. He was accused of heading one of the biggest Romanian mafia groups and had been on the run from Romania for eight years before he was arrested in Spain.
Romanian crime boss Ioan "Pig's Head" Clamparu is serving a 30 year sentence
During the trial, the victims who dared to testify against him told of how informers had their lips stitched together with wire by gang members. One prostituted woman had been tied to a tree and eaten by dogs. There were cases of women who had miscarried after being beaten by pimps, yet were forced to continue servicing men straight after losing their babies by inserting cotton buds into their vaginas.

Although Ioan Clamparu is behind bars, the Romanian mafias continue to be active all across Spain and the authorities believe that they currently operate as a multitude of small gangs, without an overarching leader. They are dominating the prostitution business in Madrid and all along the eastern coast of Spain, from Girona to the Costa del Sol, filling brothels with vulnerable young Romanian women who dreamed of a better life. 

By Andros Lozano, 02/10/2016

Translation by Ben Riddick

Original article in Spanish here


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