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By Edith G. Alejandro, Shan Seman and Brad Ruszala

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, June 30) - With successive anti-prostitution stings and construction activities ongoing in Garapan, it may appear that Saipan's business center has begun to shed its reputation as a red-light district. But any changes are actually just a matter of geography. From the west side, flesh traders have only moved to the south side of the district.

Lt. Gov. Diego T. Benavente, chair of the anti-sex trade High-5 Task Force, said as much, conceding that government efforts to transform the tourist district into a wholesome destination has become much like a game of whack-a-mole, with lawmen jumping on one section of the district and the prostitutes popping up elsewhere in the area.

"These [street-based sex workers] ventured to the southern portion of Garapan due to the construction of tourist street activities. These activities pushed them out of western Garapan, but they continue their activities at the southern portion. They are active in this part and I have been receiving reports about this," Benavente said.

Only recently, Benavente said, the High-5 Task Force office received complaints against several identified pimps and prostitutes who loiter and solicit customers around the establishments' premises in southern Garapan.

According to the complaints lodged by two big business operators, the sex workers hurt legitimate businesses as they harass and scare away tourists who come to shop in the stores.

Even worse, reports disclosed that prostitution activities have become standard fare at some restaurants. Two Chinese restaurants-one located on Beach Road and another at central Garapan-are reportedly selling the girls' services off their menu as if they were a regular dish.

The privilege, however, is offered exclusively to prominent and loyal patrons who are looking for some fun, but do not want to go through the hassle of meeting with pimps in conspicuous settings.

At the service of such patrons are in-house pimps employed by the restaurants. A special menu listing names of girls and their contact numbers, alongside the day's dishes, are also provided to loyal customers.

According to a source, the pimps only give away cards to already known customers, who are privy to the restaurants' operations and need "fun" while on island.

Meanwhile, sex trade activities continue in other parts of the business district.

Anyone who has been to the vicinity for at least two evenings in a row would not miss the woman who stands on the corner of a Garapan intersection every night, soliciting customers for the women waiting in cars with tinted windows across the street. Or the crowd of 15 to 20 scantily clad women running downstairs in formation, scurrying around corners and into cars that speed away. Or the girls that simply linger around the stoplights or sit on the railings, but do so morning, noon and night.

According to Benavente, the government has not let up its operations against prostitution activities.

The Attorney General's Office, the Department of Public Safety and the task force will continue to look at the problem. Law enforcers are investigating the complaints, he added.

Benavente also vowed that action would be taken once members of the Anti-Prostitution Task Force meet in the next few days. The group is made up of representatives from the AGO, DPS, Department of Labor, Division of Immigration, and other agencies.

"We are not tolerating it and we are pursuing this problem," said the lieutenant governor.

The lieutenant governor added that the High-5 Task Force has been working with the concerned agencies to stop the harassment of tourists and to respond to complaints received in recent months.

Operation High-5-the task force created to eliminate prostitution and other illegal activities in the tourist district of western Garapan-will also be pushing for legislation that would give more teeth to its enforcement efforts.

Benavente said Operation High-5 members are recommending measures that would possibly make building and land owners responsible for the activities that occur within their property.

The recommendation comes following the series of task force operations that have led to many prostitution and illegal gambling arrests in western Garapan over the past six months.

Benavente, who himself has patrolled the hotel street with task force members, reported of several businesses in that area using their establishments as a front for illicit activities.

The task force-composed of the Public Health Sanitation Division, Revenue and Tax, Labor and Immigration, Public Safety Department and Attorney General's Office-have reportedly shut down several establishments for certain violations.

For his part, DPS commissioner Edward Camacho said the department's lack of resources, compounded by loopholes in the law and customers' demand, has been hampering police efforts to tear down prostitution in Garapan and the rest of the island.

Camacho said the best option to eliminate sex trade is by "saturating the area with enforcement officials." But this cannot be done and sustained without the necessary resources.

"[Prostitution] is a covert operation," he said. "There are a couple of times when we just saturate the streets of Garapan with officers from all over-DPS, AGIU, Immigration, Labor, Sanitation, Department of Public Works. Unfortunately, we don't have the resources to continuously have them out there."

In addition, several vendors have expressed dislike of too much police presence around their businesses, Camacho said.

"They claim that we are scaring away their customers. Many tourists do fear the presence of a group of police officers. When they see a group of officers, they tend to move away from that area because they think that there's a problem and they don't want to be involved. Whether we do it or not, there will be complaints,"

Camacho also noted that laws against prostitution "are not strong enough."

"We have loopholes in the laws. [To arrest sex workers] we have to catch them literally in the act of exchanging money for the sexual service that they are providing," the police chief said.

As such, the police have to be careful all the time that they do not violate due process when conducting stings.

"All we need is probable cause. However, with prostitution, that is very difficult to find. Our law is just vague and lax in my view, but I am glad we have a law against that. What we need to do now is become innovative in how to enforce that law," he said.

Further, Camacho said nonresident violators should be deported.

"The first time someone is charged with prostitution, that person should be deported. However, the law is so vague that these people come back and say, 'Well, I have a federal case pending.' So now we have to keep them behind and sometimes we have to find them jobs while they are waiting for their federal or local case to [be heard]. There are so many ways that these folks come up with to beat or circumvent the system," he said.

Camacho disclosed that a measure may soon be introduced addressing the issue of deportation of sex workers.

The DPS commissioner also pinpointed the demand of prostitution activities as another issue promoting the criminal act.

"The supply would not be there if the demand isn't [present], just like drugs," he said. "If the customers are willing to keep coming back for these, there will be more providers. Let's be honest, many tourists come here for that purpose."

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